Story by Lee Su Min
It was Good to be Back
There was nothing sinister about Mark and Suzanne. Mark kept short hair and not too clean shaven so that when you looked at him, you would know that if you entered into a fight with him anytime, chances were that you would lose. Suzanne was thin and willowy wearing her hair over her shoulders. They lived on top of our unit on the fifth floor at 5A.
I lived on low ground in an apartment behind a large house. The piece of land has no name and the entire estate was large and unkempt. Overgrown trees and brown leaves dripping from the branches gave anyone who came here the general feeling that this place was uninhabited. No one would know that you lived here unless you told them. You drove into a street, then turned left into the estate, and then you went further down the road, before you found us.
It was the large Christmas tree standing in the middle of the large old garden that attracted Mother and I to this place. Once we saw it, we quickly made a down payment and booked the apartment for ourselves. At the time it seemed that all the other nine units were occupied.
After three months we realized that our landlord seemed to be too busy with his other properties and as I tried to make enquiries on him I was given a firm warning to let things be, which resulted that we have not been able to pay rent for the last three months. If it did not bother the landlord, it should not disturb us.
The weather these days was bad. It rained every day at unpredictable hours, you couldn’t decide on whether to bring your umbrella along with you when you went out, so that I found a bag large enough to carry the bulky item in any case. The bag I left it on the bench outside our front door.
Mother and I moved in on Christmas Eve 2013. We could hear the sound of the Christmas Carols from far away background and saw that some of the apartments had their balconies decorated with Christmas lights. Mother told me to take out a bottle of red wine to celebrate this new chapter of our lives. At the time we didn’t know that Mother had cancer.
On 26 March 2014, two days before Mother’s birthday, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. This piece of news shattered us, she more so than I, for she was given only one year to live. Mother had wanted more. I was still too young to comprehend what that meant. The thought of not having to see Mother again never occurred to me.
In the subsequent months, Mother and I lugged her medical reports, scan results and all other relevant materials, from one doctor to another, hoping to find cure. We even met with church workers who specialized in divine intervention. Not being satisfied, we ordered alternative medicine online, some which were primarily unavailable in the country.
We tried to salvage the little time that we have been left with now but that the bad news had a toll on our relationship. We knew that we must part on good terms but that once we made up, we were afraid that that would be the ending. So much so that we were never satisfied with just one long conversation. But we also did not know that the neighbors could hear what was said behind closed door.
Today as I was waiting for my Grab on the first floor, 1A where Elaine and her golden retriever lived, she happened to open her front door. She saw me and without a hello, said,
“Forget about your ex, he is a bad guy, move on ….”
How did she know that I was divorced?
I pretended not to hear her, and merely returned her hello, and then just at the time my Grab came. I quickly hopped in and left her. Her golden retriever barked loudly and seemed to want to follow me. I shut my car door tight and ordered the driver to bring me to my destination.
Ok, so Elaine heard Mother and me.
As I came back this evening as usual, I met Lydia at the foot of the stairs. Lydia was our second floor neighbour who lived with her sister Emma. She was always friendly with a bright smile. Today she said to me,
“you must have your own reasons for divorce, don’t let your mom influence you.”
Just at this time, Tommy Lung from the second floor at 2B opposite the sisters also came back, “Yup, don’t let your mom disturb you,” Tommy Lung worked in Citibank.
OMG! The whole neighbourhood could hear our conversation!
I resolved not to talk to mother again.
Now that since my quarrels with Mother could be heard by the neighbors, I drafted a note to offer an explanation, which was that Mother was ill and that the illness took a toll on us.
As a matter of fact, my patience was beginning to run out – not that I wanted Mother dead, but that I wanted some certainty which was positive. If Mother could live for another three years, then I would shelf my plans for graduate studies at the University of Birmingham.
Once I decided to make peace with the neighbours, I went into action. At night, after Mother had gone to bed, I drafted a note:
Dear Neighbours, If you hear some loud noises from this neighbourhood, please pardon us, it will quieten after a while, so that you could enjoy the rest of the evening. My sincere apologies. Your friendly neighbour.
I refused to acknowledge the fact that the noise came from Mother and I, for I was not about to incriminate myself.
Afterwards I did not hesitate to drop the note, copied into 9 pieces, into the letterboxes of all the residents in the block, which comprised the ten of us. I didn’t expect any reaction from the neighbours.
Nothing happened until three days later when Mother had another argument with me. This time it was about Brother Joseph. Brother Joseph was a priest who resided in India and he came to Singapore with a miracle oil which he vowed had healing properties.
“All you needed to do was to rub it where your body was ill,” he said affirmatively.
“If it were that easy, all the doctors should be dismissed,” I thought to myself. I found it difficult to believe in Brother Joseph’s oil.
Nonetheless Mother got a bottle from him and kept it close to her side. It irritated me tremendously. I would have put it together with all the other medicine since it promised to have curative powers.
As I was at the ground floor waiting for my Grab again this morning, Tommy Lung sauntered down from the second floor.
“Don’t be too hard on your mother,” he said.
“Huh? What do you mean?” believing that he did not hear our quarrels.
“Do you have to pay for this miracle oil?” Tommy asked.
OMG! He heard us!
“No, I don’t think so,” meekly I replied.
“Then let her, at least she has something to hold onto,” Tommy emphasised his words.
“I guess so,” I had nothing more to say. Looked like the entire neighbourhood was living with us in the small apartment. I almost wanted to cry.
I was still yet to find out whom the rest of the people living in the block were. First floor I knew it was Elaine with her golden retriever, the second floor I knew Lydia and Emma, and then on her side the third floor was Johnny and Florence. Florence was pregnant and due any minute and was in most of the time. The other side of the block on the first floor I knew David and Elizabeth. They have two young children and I particularly liked the younger one baby Lucas.
On the second floor was Tommy Lung which you already knew, and on the third floor 3B was a tenant of obscure origin. He kept his door shut all the time and rarely came out. His balcony was also shut as you could see from far and that there seemed to be no activity inside.
The one I most often saw was Mark and Suzanne. I found Mark aloof. On the contrary Suzanne greeted me whenever she saw me in the common area and I always looked forward to the chance of seeing them, singly or together. The ease with which Florence did things attracted me to her. Like the way she would fold her umbrella and the way she clipped her handphone under her arm whilst her hands were carrying the groceries.
I told myself it was good to be married.
Cancer patients suffered from a kind of anguish, as it was as though God has given them an ultimatum of when they must return, so that their journey in life no longer held any more surprises. There was nothing to look forward to except death. Needless to say, that put a mask on everything that they did.
I was also angry myself. I had thought that Mother could enjoy the rest of her life with me here, at this time, in this small estate grounds. I thought that every day would be Christmas as I had just quit my job as a data analyst with Hewlett Packard, after having saved up sufficient retirement funds.
And then one night I heard someone moving his furniture. I was sure that it came from upstairs. The movement was loud enough for me to determine which direction it came from. It was from the upstairs not next door. It must have been 5A. Number 5A was Stuart.
I wanted to charge upstairs to tell number 5A to stop being so loud. We didn’t often make friends, but we couldn’t help making enemies. If I went up now I would make 5A our enemy.
True enough Mother did not sleep well last night. She complained of neck pain which only Brother Joseph’s oil could help sooth her nerves.
Today I saw Mark and Suzanne again, Mark holding out the umbrella for Suzanne. The image of them together played in my mind, and the sparkling diamond ring on Suzanne’s finger did nothing but created a certain kind of jealousy in me. How much did it cost? Were Mark and Suzanne legally married? I noticed that the diamond ring did not come with a wedding band to secure it.
The next day late at night I returned, and as I got out of my Grab, I saw two figures in the dark and I saw that it was a man and a woman. The two figures entwined together I could see that they were deeply in love. I recognized Mark’ umbrella on the ground.
In the distance I could hear the birds chirping as though they were cheering them on and I could almost hear music in the background. And as I knew that it was none of my business, I walked past them and headed straight back into my apartment. Mother was waiting for me.
I dropped my shoes outside the front door before I got into the house. We have a shoe rag and we left it outside the house for we didn’t think that anyone would want to steal our old shoes. For one, our feet were smaller than most, and the thief had to be sure that it fitted her.
The entire night I wondered if the woman was Suzanne, and if it were so they need not conduct their intimacy in the dark in the garden. They have their entire fifth floor at their disposal!
The rain suddenly came on my way home. I had not expected this, and that the driver dropped me at the porch behind the garden. The minute I arrived, something moved, and it was two figures who separated themselves. I didn’t want to confront them as it was not in my habit to confront anyone. I lived quietly on the fourth floor with my mother who was suffering from cancer and I really have no inclinations to invite more trouble.
But one day as I met Mark on the ground floor, he suddenly approached me and started conversation. Mark never spoke to me.
“Are you going overseas recently?” Mark said.
“Not in the near future, why?” I replied.
“I thought that you could look after my plants for me while I am away,” he said.
Before I could reply. Mark continued,
“Why haven’t you married?”
“That is really none of your business,” I said quietly.
I don’t want to water his plants for him.
I gave him one of my toothless smiles and I turned and walked away, straight up to the apartment where mother will be asking why I took so long.
But I felt distinctly uncomfortable after the interaction with Mark. He asked me for information which was not relevant to my relationship with him. I need not declare my marital status to him to water his plants. And I thought that he, including the other eight apartments, already knew that I was divorced. He was only my neighbor, it was really too personal.
Again, Mark attempted to talk to me,
“Do you have any siblings?” he went straight to the point.
“No, why?” naturally I was more guarded this time.
“No reason, I don’t see anyone visiting you so was just wondering,”
It was as though he had prepared himself each time. I asked myself if I should continue to meet him like this even though I had no choice in the matter. But I didn’t have that many friends. At forty-four most of my friends were already married.
A person who was good looking knew that he was good looking. Number 5A Stuart was like that. It was no surprise that he worked in the Japan Airlines as an air steward. I was also impressed by the fact that he spoke Japanese.
One day hanging my clothes in the backyard I found a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt. I took the jeans and examined it. It was large and clearly a man’s trousers. At the same time when I was unfolding it something dropped out of the jeans pocket – it was a passport!
Curiosity got the better of me, and I immediately turned the pages to the biodata page to see to whom it belonged. It said,
“Stuart Lin Chi An”
I quickly put it back in the pocket for the document was semiwet soaked with water. It must have gone into the washing machine. Chances were that the apartment on top was sunning the pair of jeans and that it had fallen into our backyard from his. I pondered on the thought to return the passport back to the rightful owner.
Hey wait! Stuart gave me the impression that he was Singaporean, and to all intents and purposes he spoke Singaporean English. But his passport was a Japanese passport!
Did he have dual nationality?
As usual I found my way home after I had gone for some coffee. Coffee has become my source of food rather than rice, since the kitchen was no longer in operation for me. I usually started to count the steps once I was at the entrance of the estate. That was to make walking up to the fourth floor a less awesome task.
“Mother, I am back!” I yelled, making myself sound as cheerful as I could.
I walked further in, to her bedroom. Maybe Mother was sound asleep. But hey! Mother was gone.
In panic, I rushed around the house to all the other rooms to see if she were elsewhere. But alas, no!
Immediately I went to her room to see if her handphone was there. No, she did not bring it along with her, so that meant that she was uncontactable. I saw her Rosary. It was lying there right in front of me staring at me. Now I have no choice but to resort to using this as a tool to relieve stress. I picked up the Rosary and started to meditate. I have been to the church I was seeing Father Jeremy Koh, so I knew how to pray the Rosary. I have no other resource. I was her only child, I have no siblings to confide in.
I sat in semi darkness for at least an hour before I heard the front door open and someone coming in.
It was Christian.
The threat of dying loomed over us. We knew that time was running out as we approached the ninth month. Dying has never been so real to me. I never encounter death. I never went near a dead person, so that I was still unable to comprehend the finality of it. But I loved Mother. Since my divorce I had depended entirely on Mother for emotional support.
Today I opened one of Mother’s luggage. Inside was my marriage certificate. I wanted to confront her before I remembered that I had asked her to keep it for me. Since the divorce, I had left all matrimonial articles with Mother, including my wedding ring. This was not something which I wanted to keep, but it was also a souvenir that most would find it hard to abandon. I wanted to ask Mother if I should inform my ex-husband to come in to see her, but that meant putting her in distress, so that I refrained. Mother was in a poorer state of health now, frail and almost without meat. I knew that she was deeply upset by the laboratory report, and we did take one week to recover from the shock. Why. She did everything that the doctor asked her to do, took all her medications. Yet her condition hasn’t improved.
It was the two figures in the back garden again. I decided not to intrude upon them. They were minding their own business, yet something compelled me to expose them as I felt that Suzanne ought to know about this, since the woman did not seemed to be her. Although I had no right to determine their actions, if what they did was wrong then I could call on the authorities. But so far I have no proof of any wrong doing unless I could prove that Mark was legally married to Suzanne, and for that I would have to procure their marriage certificate. That was definitely not within the scope of the duty of a neighbour.
I sought counselling with Father Jeremy Koh Soo Liang.
“First of all, you must tidy up your religious belief. You have to decide which God suits you most …. Of course there are more than one God. But we the Protestants and the Catholics believe that there is only one God, which is Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
I pondered on his words and decided that it was too difficult to digest so that I went home and slept on it. When I woke up, I saw a rose by my pillow.
I might have brought it home.
I picked it up and brought it to a vase and added some water before putting the stock in. And then I had my coffee. The booklet which Father Jeremy Koh gave me stared at me from the table. I knew that I must see him again this week.
But actually I had already decided on Buddhism, for it allowed me to believe that Mother would come back as another person after her departure. This was more acceptable than waiting for another ten twenty years before I could see her again in heaven. I told myself I was going to take my leave from Father Jeremy Koh.
Happiness was like perfume. When you wore some others would enjoy it too. So was illness, someone who was perpetually ill made bad company. I couldn’t say that I did not entertain the thought of leaving Mother. I was close to moving out. Mother was a different mother now.
In cancer, there was no formula for cure, no formula for death either. Mother’s illness has progressed, meaning that the cancer has spread to her other organs. She was angry and often threw things around. Food was left on the table without her touching it. After she has ordered me about she felt vindicated, as though I were the cancer cells circulating in her body finding a nest to settle down.
After scanning a five page report to Dr Chang Wai Mun our radiologist, I rested for a while. Mother had found yet another alternative health specialist who told her that there was cure. The thing was that Mother believed him, and that he had reasons to suggest so. But I myself was not so encouraged. I belonged to the old school of thought, that once you had cancer there was no cure. The issue lied in how much time you could bargain with God. I wanted to be by her side to say goodbye to her. I loved Mother and Mother loved me.
By chance I met Stuart with his suitcase. He was on one of his trips again.
“Wait! How are you going to travel without your passport?” I asked.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“I got your passport with me,” I said, non-categorially.
Stuart did not reply.
“Are you a Japanese or a Singaporean?” I couldn’t help but blurted out.
“Oh, so the pair of jeans are with you … was looking high and low for it,” he muttered.
“Listen, you seemed young and available, why don’t you come to Japan with me?” out of the blue he offered, and then he added,
“ …. after your mother is gone …. so you can start a new life.”
It seemed like an option has been presented to me. I asked myself if Mother was going to come back as Stuart.
“You still have time to think about it, she … your mom … is not so seriously ill yet?”
“I shall consider your proposal, thanks …” I replied.
I did mention that Stuart was good looking, and that I would need someone.
As usual, I went out for some coffee to relieve myself. The kitchen was now primarily used for cooking food for cancer patients. Sugar has been prohibited and nowhere to be found, apart from salt and oil. The best part of the fridge the top compartment has been reserved for Vitamin C sachets purchased online ordered by Mother.
Whenever I wanted to do some cooking I often found one or two ingredients missing.
Later on in the day when I met Father Jeremy Koh again, I told him that I’d rather believe in Buddhism.
“They believe in the theory of reincarnation, so that meant that Mother would come back after she’d been gone … in another person. This theory gives me a lot of comfort. I cannot accept the fact that I will never see her again,” I told Father frankly.
“May God bless you.” Father has his final word.
“It is imperative to make amends with your mother before she died.” Dr Chang advised me before we left his consultation room today. I had no choice but to accommodate Mother in all of her demands.
Today I saw Mark and a woman on the car on my way back from the office. Mark was driving and the woman was putting on her lipstick. I could only see her profile. I tried to greet Mark from inside my car but he did not see me. And we still haven’t decided on when to water his plants yet.
I found Mark’s umbrella at our shoe rag amongst our shoes. Did he abandon it? Or did he mean to leave it there temporarily? I looked at 4B and noticed for the first time that Mark and Suzanne didn’t have any furniture outside their apartment.
Lying in bed waiting to fall asleep, it occurred to me that Mark might have wanted to find out how much I knew about his affair and to ask me to conceal it for him.
I am still yet to confirm the identity of the woman.
I believed that both evil and goodness exist in the same realm. When someone was dying the evil would come and make an attempt to take him as well. But if the dying man was a good person, the angels would be able to take his soul up to heaven.
The problem still lied with my religious belief. I didn’t want Mother, a staunch Catholic, to know that I have faith in other beliefs. To her, they were the lesser gods.
But as luck have it, I couldn’t help the exchange on religion. Mother wanted her way.
Today Mother suddenly said to me, “I have an appointment which I think I might be late, could you check for me?”
“What appointment is that?” I asked immediately.
“With The Almighty.” Mother said.
I didn’t know why on this particular instance Mother choose not to call Him “God”. Nonetheless I entertained her.
“Oh? You could go to Mass to look for Him,” I thought that Father Jeremy Koh might have told her of my decision to choose Buddhism.
“No, I want you to see Father Jeremy Koh with me to do an anointing,” Mother ordered me.
This could confirm me as a Catholic, which was against my better judgement. I believed in Buddhism now. I have not abandoned God, just the mode on which He could be contacted.
In order to lighten things I said, “Let me check with the Bible, I am sure they will tell us,” and then before I started to tear I walked out of Mother’s sight. I went into my room and sat on the chair for ten minutes, then I started to pray the rosary again. I had forgotten that it was a Catholic rosary. Tomorrow I shall go to the temple to purchase a Buddhist charm.
To eliminate someone from your system you must do so systematically and logically and control your urge to go back to him, if you think that it was a bad habit.
I have resolved not to go back to my ex-husband. Under normal circumstances, this was a scenario where exceptions could be made. After all bereavement was not something that happened every day.
I buried Mother according to her Catholic faith, and I spoke to all the relatives and friends until everyone was satisfied that she has gone to heaven.
At night I woke up and I moved her belongings from one room to another, hoping to find them a resting place. At 3:00 a.m., I thought that I heard Mother calling me again. I didn’t know where she was, but I was certain that it came from her. The voice seemed to have come from outside, so that I opened the front door. And once I stepped out, there was no turning back. I have to find the source of the voice as it belonged to my late mother.
I saw Mark and his girlfriend … and this time she looked like Suzanne.
I saw Elaine and her golden retriever …
I saw Lydia and Emma …
I saw Tommy Lung …
They were the same persons, but now they did not seem so connected to me.
And then suddenly they vanished from my vision. I looked at the time, and instantly recognized that it was late after midnight.
Since Mother’s passing I have been living alone in a shell. Like a tortoise I came out by day when everyone else was having their lunch and sometimes when they were preparing for dinner. Mother was my best and only friend I have no other source of companionship. I shunned all my friends after my divorce.
Again I opened Mother’s cupboard to see if I could dispose of some of her old clothes. Mother was a thrifty woman and she sewed her own apparels. I have not had a chance to learn that skill from her before she died. I picked up two pieces and I quickly kept it in my wardrobe.
And then I moved her belongings from one room to another. I walked from Mother’s bedroom to mine, then to the kitchen, and then back to her room, before walking to my own bedroom to sit down and cry again. I never felt more alone.
I knocked on the vase by the side and it fell down, the glass breaking into several pieces. The stock of rose also fell onto the floor. I picked up the pieces of broken glasses, and the rose, and I tried walking to the nearest dustbin, before I dropped everything onto the floor again. Then I went to the backyard to bring the mop to wipe the water that was in the vase.
“Let me clean up the mess for you,” I heard a voice.
Don’t tell me I am hearing voices …
And then someone held my hand. I looked up, my eyes met with another.
“I am back. Since your mom fell ill, I have been wanting to get in touch with you again. Your mom came to see me some time ago and told me to look after you when she was gone. And after having saw you that night I have decided that I would be most pleased to do so …”
“ … I have also spoken to Father Jeremy Koh, he said that since both of us are Catholics, we were never considered as having been divorced in the eyes of God.”
It was Christian.
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