Story by Lee Su Min
One Moment In Time
They say that insanity is doing the same thing every day and hoping to get a different result. Tonight again I lit a candle at the altar and pray that Gary would come back and tell me the truth ....
Amy was probably asleep when I came back. Her eyes were closed but the light was on. Instinctively I went to the bedside table and turned the light off. She moved a little without opening her eyes. I pulled the blanket over her shoulder as I felt the chill air blowing at her from the open window. And then I saw the note by the side of her pillow –
“Sorry I am sleepy!”
I picked up the note, put it inside the drawer together with all the other notes that she left for me. And then I went in to take a shower to wash away the layer of germs mapped on my body. I haven't bathed for the entire day I smelt yeasty.
When I put the clothes in the washing machine, the sound of the machine churning came on, and Amy woke up.
“You are back?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. There was nothing more to add.
“How was your clinic?” she asked, the same question every time.
“Will you make me breakfast tomorrow morning?” with a tinge of hope I spoke.
“I try, then please wake me up tomorrow morning,” she spoke, her eyes still closed.
I knew then that she would not be awake tomorrow morning before I left for work.
Then I turned on the lamp by my side of the bed and I turned it off again when I have pulled the blanket over my face.
Outside, the moon was shining brightly as though telling me that this was going to be another long night.
Amy and I lived at the Blue Oval Lodge. We have no children but two dogs. We called them Tommy and Harry. She brought them down to the estate grounds every evening at around 6:00 p.m. without fail. Esther would look for her if she didn’t. I would usually join them later after work when I have taken off my shrubs.
Esther was our neighbour at the other end of the estate block 7. Together with Gary they owned Max the bulldog. I didn’t want to insult its owner, but I must say that Gary’s face puffed up at the jaw, and he looked like his pet.
“Max stands for Maximillian” Esther proudly told me, as though exhibiting her knowledge of the English names. Maximillian is not a common name and is a little aristocrat. I would never have thought of such a name for my pet.
Esther was not pretty by the conventional standards. Her eyes are slightly too far apart but they were bright, very forward looking. Whenever she saw me, her face beamed up like a star. And I couldn’t say that I didn’t like her. On the contrary, Gary was sulky and expressionless if not withdrawn. I couldn’t say that they make a compatible couple.
We have four dogs here.
The other furry companion was owned by Joyce and Mark. Mark was a financial consultant. His business was to make people park their monies with him. I have not had the chance to ask him where he worked. But I assumed it to be a multinational company, judging by the way he talked. His wife Joyce was always hoping to buy another house.
I barely earned enough to cover all my expenses since Amy didn’t work. Amy’s depression has been withheld from the neighbours. To all intends and purposes, Amy passed off as a healthy, energetic young woman. We told everyone that she was not working simply because she didn’t need to, that our house was mortgage free.
“But won’t she feel bored at home?” the query popped up ever so often.
To which Amy would reply, “No, I have plenty of things to do at home, for one, I read a lot,”
“Then what books do you read?” Esther would ask.
“All sorts,” Amy would reply, without naming any specific titles.
And then the topic of conversation would end there, moving onto the daily news.
“A man threw his dog down the balcony. Did you see that in the news?” Esther raised.
“Such a sadist, he ought to be put in jail,” Amy replied.
“Yup, a beast!” Joyce added.
“I wonder how many storeys the owner threw his dog down from?” Amy got excited.
“Yup, the news report didn’t mention, I wonder if you throw Tommy down from your fifth story he would die on the spot?” Esther carried on.
“Throw Tommy?! How could you think of a thing like that?!” Amy exclaimed; her eyes rolled big.
“No lah, of course not! I love Tommy too!” Esther retorted.
“Amy, do you love Tommy more or Harry more?” Joyce pestered on.
And then they continued with the banter ....
On the other side, Mark was trying to persuade me to put one hundred thousand with him in some unit trusts. I didn’t bother to note the name of the counters, as I didn’t have one hundred thousand to spare. Every cent was spent on housekeeping, according to Amy.
We chatted, and then when it was time to have dinner, we parted ways, each party back to their own units in the same estate.
Night fell, and I turned on the lamp standing by the side of the fireplace to illuminate the house.
When I went into the bedroom Amy had already taken her pill and was falling asleep on the large floral sheets. I could see that she wasn’t interested in talking to me anymore.
Once again, I asked myself why I married Amy.
Because I was the department head. No one in the St Peter’s Hospital liked to enter the lift with me, and as I did not like to be in the lift alone, I always took the stairs. It was ok, my clinic was only on the third level, but that walking down the stairs was less demanding than going up, so that I would still take the lift sometimes.
This morning the moment I went into the lift, I saw two women inside, I pressed the button on the panel to go up. Then I heard one of the women say,
“Mom, don’t worry, I will be waiting outside.”
I looked at the older woman and remembered that she saw me at my clinic last week. She had stage 3 breast cancer and I was supposed to do a biopsy on her.
I went to work without checking on Amy. Amy always kept a book by her side, she relied on it to stop her mind from straying. Normally I would pick up the book to see how far she has progressed. And then I would be able to tell if she was unhappy.
Amy was a painter. If you came to our house, you would see large paintings of scenes in China. Her works were all imaginary and I can assure you that she had never been to China. But she did have some talent. Her colours were a dark grey but her subjects were by no means opaque. They presented a clear and, if I may say so, theme of a tormented soul. It served as nothing except to remind me that she was abandoned by her parents since her childhood.
The words from her mouth rang in my ears repeatedly – “why did you kill my mother?”
“No, I swear, …. it was unintentional …. the oxygen in her brain ran out …”
“But why? Didn’t you know that she needed oxygen?”
“No, not at that point in time ….”
It was the woman with breast cancer.
I fumbled on my words, and I woke up in a stark.
Amy was just lying beside me, but I couldn’t wake her. She has taken those pills; she couldn’t wake up.
I got up from my bed, slowly walked to the kitchen to get some light, before drinking a glass of water to calm myself down.
How did I report on this regular occurrence of nightmares?
I was a doctor, but in this instance, I felt like seeing a shrink.
Maybe I should consult Amy’s doctor, I told myself. And then I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheets to cover myself from the wind that came after midnight.
I almost tripped on an orange that rolled down right in front of me. Automatically I picked it up and looked around. I saw a large burner in front of the rubbish refuse collection point. A man was throwing some papers onto the fire, and he had some other oranges spread on the floor in front of the burner.
Tentatively I walked up to him.
“Can I help you?” he said.
I knew it was a substitute for don’t disturb me.
So, I quickly said, “Your orange,”
“Oh, you could pass it to me, it’s not meant to be eaten,” he added.
Of course, it was not meant to be eaten! I muttered under my breath.
Then I was suddenly awakened to the fact that this was the month of the hungry ghost. The Chinese festivities were being carried out. I choked on the smoke from the burner and used my hand to cover my nose.
“I will be done soon, not to worry,” the man said, and then, “you do not have any late relatives, do you?”
“Err, no, …. but I actually have a patient who died recently ….” I couldn’t help saying.
“You could use this burner if you want, it’s not private property,” the man said, he was wearing a black top and a pair of torn white pants.
This was out of my character. I was not a Buddhist, burning incense is not my habit, whatever I might have owed the deceased. At most, I could make out a sum to support the deceased’s family. But as I said, the operation was an accident. I had a consent form that day and I did my best. The rest was pure chance. Chan Ming Ming’s daughter had already said that she wasn’t going to sue the hospital. She knew that she had no case.
Feeling slightly disgusted, I walked away from the scene.
“I won’t be here tomorrow!” the man yelled after me.
We gathered ourselves at the Blue Oval Lodge playground again. This has become a nightly ritual except for the rain. None of us here observed the seven-month hungry ghost festival. But Esther had a bright suggestion – shall we visit one of the graveyards?
“Sounds spooky to me!” Amy replied immediately.
“I have never seen a ghost, this would be the best time to see if they actually exist,” Esther said.
“And what if they did?” Joyce asked.
“They have supernatural powers, maybe they could help us in some ways if we talk to them nicely,” Esther argued.
“I can tell you now, I have no special needs,” I quickly answered.
“We can drive there, and look see,” Gary was keen.
“Ok, who wants to participate?” Esther the eager one.
“Not us, we are superstitious,” Joyce rejected the idea on behalf on Mark.
“Not a problem! Then just the four of us,” Esther quickly confirmed the plan.
On the twenty-second of August, we finally found our way to the Faber Green graveyard.
Outside the car, I took a deep breath. After the rain I could feel a layer of ozone fresh and invigorating, even if we were at a God forsaken place.
The minute we got away from the car further into the uninhabited grounds, Gary turned to me,
“How often do you do it?” his voice a whisper.
Do what? I was flabbergasted. I knew what he meant.
“I guess as often as the situation calls for it,” I did not keep a record of the number of times and how regularly Amy and I slept together.
“I know that Esther is yearning for a child,” Gary said.
“I know that too,” I replied, almost like a retort.
“But God has His own timing,” I added.
“Indeed,” Gary looked pensive.
“Are you unhappy with Esther?” it seemed like the right time to probe.
“No, why. Of course not. Esther is a good wife.” Gary said it with a kind of determination that made his affirmation sound false.
“Are you unhappy?” he added.
I decided not to open my mouth. Anything I said further might jeopardize my relationship with Amy. Gary might talk to Esther, and Esther talked to Amy. One of them might decide to cross the line.
The night became still, and I couldn’t help but feel a presence behind Gary. I wanted to tell him to turn around and look, but before I could warn him, the figure vanished. I felt a chill, the hot air suddenly became cold.
Finally, when we reached the end of the valley where no more tombs were erected, Gary grabbed my arm and I turned back. I saw his urgency and sensed that there was more than what it looked on the surface – an evening stroll between two good friends.
I knew then that it was a watershed moment.
Silence dominated the atmosphere. The entire place was humid and without breeze. Then Gary opened his mouth,
“I am diagnosed with cancer,” he spoke as though finding difficulty spilling out the words.
“What kind of cancer?”
“Oh dear! Brain cancer is very fast!” I fell, almost leaned on a tombstone.
“Does Esther know this?” my immediate concern.
“No,” Gary said.
“And how long more do you have?” my next question.
“I am not sure …. the doctor said that I am already stage 3 ….” I could hear the thin line of panic that laced his words.
“I am really sorry to hear about this,” I said, emphasizing the word sorry, and I had to refrain myself from saying, “Yes, brain cancer is very fast.”
“Anyway, my purpose in telling you is that I would like you to look after Esther for me, you know after all, she is an only child, and her parents are no longer around,”
“Yes! Yes! Of course, I would,” I said, with a kind of excitement that I couldn’t believe myself saying.
“Here is my cheque,” Gary took out a piece of paper, “it is the sum I think you would need to bury me,”
“Please take care of all the arrangements,” he made it sound as though it was going to happen tomorrow.
Automatically I accepted the note. In the dark I couldn’t figure out how much the cheque was for. I thought it would be bad-mannered to ask now. But Gary addressed my concern,
“Will twenty thousand dollars be enough?”
“I really don’t know,” I said, and then I muttered under my breath, “God forbid! Haven’t buried anyone before ….”
Now we have almost reached the car, where we parked it, the two women were still inside, presumably having a good chat.
One of them saw us coming, I think it was Amy, and she came out to open Gary’s door at the driver’s side.
At the same time, Esther came out to open my side of the door.
We promptly climbed into our seats. The purpose of the meeting has been achieved, as far as Gary was concerned.
“You are back so soon! We are not done yet!” Esther and Amy exclaimed at the same time.
And then, almost immediately, “What did the two of you talk about?” Esther asked. She was always the more gregarious one.
“Nothing bad about you and Amy,” I said, I felt I had to cover up for Gary.
“Luckily it didn’t rain,” Gary quickly changed the topic.
“Are you two hungry enough to eat steak yet?” Gary was more practical.
“Yay! I want my medium rare,” Esther yelled.
“I want my steak well done,” Amy quickly made her preference known.
“Ok, one medium rare, one well done, and Gary?” I said as I took the order.
“Rare,” Gary said, “You forgot?”
“Just in case you have changed your mind, Gary,” I said, but actually I had forgotten. I could never remember if it was Esther or Gary who wanted the steak medium rare.
Gary started the engine, and I sat in silence thinking of his appeal to me to look after Esther. I felt languish and was not sure if I wanted to do this, although earlier on I found no reason to refuse him. It sounded reasonable enough.
In the end we landed ourselves in Rare or Well Done, and as usual Gary foot the bill.
Once back at Blue Oval Lodge Amy went straight to the bathroom to wash up, and without procrastination I took Tommy and Harry down to the grounds for a walk. The dogs peed themselves at their regular favourite lampposts.
When I came back upstairs, Amy was already sound asleep.
If you think that I married Amy because of her culinary skills, then you are very wrong.
Amy could only cook very simple dishes. Sometimes she simply fried beansprouts with chili and garlic. Other times, she dumped ready made fish balls into water and turned it into a soup. I marveled at her ingenuity in cooking such lazy dishes.
Usually, the pungent smell of garlic and ginger greeted me from the kitchen as I turned the key in the doorknob. Tonight, as I walked further in straight to the kitchen, no one was there. Amy was not in her usual station by the sink. Nonetheless I wasn't alarmed.
As I opened the bedroom door, I found Esther sitting on the bed with Amy. The two women greeted me the moment they saw me, one more enthusiastic than the other. I was surprised but not disappointed.
I always welcomed Esther’s presence. She seemed to pay more attention to what I say rather than Amy. And she always went along with what I said. There was this distinct feeling that I got, not very concrete, but certain enough to be able to say that Esther liked me. Of course, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure. It was just a hinge.
On the other hand, I couldn’t say that Amy liked Gary.
“So good that you are back early, sorry I haven’t cooked dinner, can we eat out?” Amy asked.
“Of course, we have a guest here,” I said, turning to Esther,
“You don’t have to look after Gary today?”
“No, not for tonight, he has gone out with some friends.” Esther looked slightly downcast.
“Come, let’s all go out, but let me change out of this first,” I promised the two young women, and walked towards the wardrobe.
Once we settled the dogs, we were ready to leave.
“Suggest a place,” I ordered the two.
“Anywhere is good for me, I am easy” Esther offered.
“Ok, then I would suggest The Winsor Café,” Amy liked that café, it was not too expensive.
“Fine with me,” Esther had no objection.
“Ok, then it shall be The Winsor Café.” I was too tired to think of another place. In any case, The Winsor Café was nearby so there was no need to take out the car.
We were just about to start on our main course when Esther suddenly said, “Gary doesn’t want it anymore,”
Amy and I looked at each other, pretending not to comprehend what she meant.
But Esther was resolved, and she persevered, “I even told him that I wanted a child,”
Amy, all full of eagerness, asked, “Did he say no?”
“No, of course not. We agreed that we should have a child by this year end,” Esther answered.
“You don’t have much time left this is November already!” Amy was dead serious.
I listened to the two. At the back of my mind, I knew what the problem was. Gary was having the cancer now; he shouldn’t have sex. He was planning on a departure; he won’t want to burden Esther with an offspring. I kept quiet, I knew I had to say something, but I also knew that I couldn’t speak the truth. Esther would have to find out about Gary’s condition from Gary himself, even if Gary didn’t want to tell her. I was an outsider, I shouldn’t interfere.
“There must be a reason,” I said, “Maybe he was just tired,”
“That is a lame excuse,” Esther answered, “Gary used to need it twice a week,”
“Ok, now I know! Gary is having an affair!” Amy made a shocking discovery.
“What can I do about it? I have no evidence!” Esther followed suit.
“Hire a P.I.?” Amy suggested.
“Who’s going to pay for it? I am using Gary’s credit card, he is bound to find out,” Esther lamented.
“Then let me help you there, I would pay for it first until you find out the truth,” my wife was most helpful.
At this point I felt I had to interject, “Hey, this is too premature. You can’t hire a P.I. just because your husband is not sleeping with you. You have not seen this so-called mistress, have you?”
“You men are always protecting each other!” Esther looked annoyed.
“Why don’t we just give it a few more weeks?” I suggested. By this time Gary might have found the courage to confide in Esther.
This seemed to have worked. Esther decided to take my advice and she promptly picked up her fork and put a chunk of beef into her mouth to stop talking. I gave Amy the look that says, please don’t talk about it anymore.
“Milk for your coffee?” Amy spread a layer of steamed milk onto Esther’s cup, and I watched the float find its way into the brown liquid before calling for the bill.
I knew that sooner or later I had to confront the deceased’s next-of-kin.
I saw her. The next-of-kin. Sitting on the yellow bench, she looked forlorn at the waiting area. I wanted to walk back to my clinic to avoid her, but she stood up right in front of me,
“Are you Dr Phillip Chow Eng Huat?” she asked.
“Sorry, you can call me Dr Phillip. What can I do for you?” I don't use my Chinese name, how could she have known?
“I am the deceased’s only wife, his next-of-kin,” she started, as though the man could have had two wives.
“Did you deliberately let him die?” she continued, as though I was some witness on the stand.
“Doctors are not saints. they are no different from any man that you see on the streets,” I could only say this to her.
Yes, another patient of mine had died.
Yes, I didn’t know why. But more than one patient had died this month. I had begun to wonder if it had been bad luck, and whether one of the unseen beings had followed me from the graveyard that night back into the hospital with me.
I must set the record straight. I am a doctor and an oncologist, not a cold-blooded murderer. The patients who came to see me already had a ticket to heaven, or hell, wherever he was bound. I could only delay the formation of more tumours, thus to some extent cure. I am not a miracle healer and have never professed to be one. Although some patients do get cure contrary to prognosis. How could the bereaved families come to look for me and blame me for something beyond my control?
So that I had decided to use the song by Elaine Paige “I Know Him So Well” during my operations. The lyrics “.... perfect situations must go wrong ....” befitting my frame of mind.
It had become a nightly occurrence for Esther to drop by for dinner with Amy and I, the three of us would stroll down to The Winsor Café. The waitress also need not take our orders and food was automatically served after a simple hello.
Amy was very happy about this situation, as she need not cook. Cooking has never been her forte anyway. Esther on the other hand, was no longer her gregarious, confident self. I often found her deep in thought during mid-conversation. Of course, I knew what the problem was, and it would have been insincere of me to ask.
“Is Gary working late tonight?” Amy asked.
“Of course, otherwise he would have joined us,” Esther would reply.
This dialogue happened at least once every evening.
And then I would distract them by telling them about the current news on the basis that neither of them had read the day’s newspapers.
Tonight, as I walked Tommy and Harry, I took a detour. Instead of turning back when I saw the pool, I went further down the estate to the playground, where the six of us usually gathered in the evenings. From the ground I could see Esther and Gary’s house on the third storey, and I noticed that they have already put up their Christmas lights at the balcony.
I wondered if Gary’s cancer is manifesting its symptoms by now and if he had told Esther about his condition. Whatever it was, Esther will have to know about it sooner or later. The fact remained that Gary’s time was running out.
I didn’t normally pray, but this time I looked up to the sky and asked the Almighty to do something to save the poor couple. I saw myself on an ocean liner on the high seas and Esther and Gary were on a boat amidst the choppy sea. They looked like they were drowning, and I tried to reach out to them, but my liner was sailing further away from their boat. And then I heard Tommy and Harry barked. The two dogs often barked at the same time.
“Why are you here?” Esther appeared in front of me, her hand holding Max on the leash.
“Oh, I am just walking Tommy and Harry,” I said.
“But why are you in this part of the estate?” she questioned, and then she continued,
“I am not saying that you can’t come here, after all this is common grounds .... but you don’t normally venture here!”
“Gary is not asleep yet? I could only ask, without giving out more information.
“He is out with a friend,” Esther replied.
“Listen, I think I should tell you ....” and then I gave up. My common sense came back to me, I had promised Gary that I would keep it a secret. If Gary knew that I had told Esther about his cancer, he might confront me, or not see me anymore, I didn’t know which was worse.
“It’s late, let’s go back,” I said, I suddenly thought of Amy waiting for me in the house.
“Ok, goodnight, Phillip, see you tomorrow!” Esther was still her cheerful self.
If you tell me that Amy never loved me, chances were that I won’t believe you. I courted her at twenty-one when we were both in the university, not assiduously, although with a certain amount of effort. She was not particularly good in her studies, and it was my offer of extra tuition for her that gave me time with her alone. And over time, I learnt that she had no idea that she was pretty at all. We held a freshie queen contest amongst us guys and nine out of ten said that she topped the list.
But that was in the past, now Amy was my wife. I had no complains about her except that she was depressed most of the time. The only time that she seemed to be alive was when she was with the neighbours downstairs. Was it the company of Esther and Gary that cheered her up? Or was it Joyce and Mark? I had no idea. Nevertheless, I allowed myself to believe that Amy married me because she loved me.
But recently, I found Amy to be putting on makeup just before she went down. She had also found it necessary to polish her nails, a habit which she had never had before. I won’t say that it was a bad habit, just that it seemed a little odd. Apart from that, Amy had also started to keep her hair long. She used to have shoulder length hair, but it had become much longer now.
Amy was on the pill. And the pill changes in prolactin level affecting hormonal balance thus causing infertility. She could not get pregnant. I knew about her condition before we married, and I have already resigned to the fact that we will never have children.
Once Amy was out of the shower, we could go down to the playground. Tommy and Harry were waiting for us.
Now she looked radiant, I could see her cheeks, more rosy than usual, and I was just wondering if she found a new brand of rouge. The pink seemed the be the right shade.
I was not a woman, so I wouldn’t know how Amy thinks. But for a married woman to be so concerned about how she looked, it seemed odd. But it was unlikely that Amy was seeing someone. She hardly went out, neither did she have any close friends.
My conscience has been speaking to me. I finally knew that I had to tell her. I must tell Esther that her husband was dying of cancer. Gary was being unfair to Esther. How could he not let his wife know of such an important fact? This concerned her future. They have no children, and Esther was young, she could still marry again.
The thought compelled me, lately it had become so imminent that I felt I couldn’t put it off until the next day, or the day after.
I felt that I had to see Esther that day. I had wanted to get it off my chest for a long time. Gary cannot lie to Esther about his condition forever. Even if the cancer was slow moving, sooner or later it would manifest. It would be wiser to let Esther know that he was ill and for her to look after him. Maybe in that way it could delay the formation of his tumors.
I paid Esther a visit. Never mind that it was Christmas Day and that usually only families came.
From the lift lobby I could hear the chatter of people talking and the music that accompanied the background. I paused and for a while I did wonder if I should go in. But urgency got the better of me, and I decided to pound on the door. I said “pound”, because I knew that I needed to make some noise loud enough for the occupant inside to hear me, since it seemed to be boisterous. But, with the purpose that I was visiting, I should have chosen a quieter moment, when no one else except Esther was around. It should never have been a Christmas Day. Gary was likely to be at home.
It took almost an instant. The door was opened, but only half opened, leaving no room for doubt that my visit was unwelcomed.
“Did you forget something?” the voice from inside was loud enough for me, despite the accompanying noises.
“Oh ... err ... is Esther, isn’t it?” I asked, somewhat tentatively, my voice I put it at medium range, not too loud and not too soft.
“Ok, let me get your handphone for you,” Esther said again.
This time it was clear that Esther had mistook me for someone else, most likely Gary.
“No, I am not your husband Gary,” I said, emphasizing the word “husband”.
“Then what on earth ....” the door opened, revealing an Esther in a night dress.
It was already past 11:00 am, and if you were looking at the clock now, you might have seen the long minute hand moving towards the short hour hand to coincide at the twelve number. I thought I was late enough. I had expected Esther to shut the door leaving me standing outside. And then let me in again after she had gone to change into something more modest. But no, she said,
“Come on in, Gary had just gone out to get the newspapers, I don’t know why they didn’t deliver this morning. Perhaps our neighbour next door picked up our copy.”
“Is it convenient?” I asked.
“Not at all. I will just go down and grab something then come up again,” she said.
My heart was pounding, and I think it was beating at close to a hundred heartbeat. And although it was the cold wintry season, my face was getting the hot flushes. I think I was one of the gingerbread men that just came out of the oven.
“No, wait, Esther,” I said, taking her by the arm.
You must tell her! You must tell her the truth!
The voice inside me was saying.
To my surprise, Esther did not move away, instead she turned to face me,
“Phillip, finally ....”
“Yes, I came here ....” I swallowed what I had wanted to say. I saw Esther’s eyes. They called it “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” and they were watery; I could almost see my own reflection in them.
“Come, let’s go down to the bedroom,” Esther used her other hand to pull at my hand that I grabbed her with.
So mesmerizing and tantalizing. There was no doubt about it. I was taught to cure in medical school, I don't know how to break a heart. Esther had wanted me to make a proposition. Even an idiot would have realized it. And only a fool would walk away from this moment ....
I tried to inject some humour. “Wait! What if Gary comes home suddenly?”
“He has gone out for an assignment and won’t be back until late tonight. I think he took his handphone with him.” Those were the final words Esther said before we took off our clothes ......
I took a long walk back to my unit. Although it was only three blocks away, I took half an hour, pausing at every garden lamp that marked the lone and darkened path.
Amy was asleep when I arrived at home.
That gave me some time to think of what my next moves should be. I will no doubt have to see Gary again, as our respective spouses were on friendly neighbourly terms. It would be difficult to hide our clandestine affair. The fact that it happened on a holy day was the sheer irony of it.
Gary was a respectable professional so there was no doubt that he must have a sizable amount of money in his bank account. He probably had bought several insurance policies naming Esther as the beneficiary. Apart from that there was also the house that they owned.
The purpose for which I dropped over at Gary’s house was not achieved. Esther still did not know that Gary was having the dreadful cancer. Or did she already know and that was why she initiated the affair? After all it was not unwise for the spouse to secure a next-in-line before the incumbent died. Whether I liked it or not, I had unwittingly walked into this role.
For the first time I looked at Amy’s sleeping body with detachment. She was no longer the only woman that I loved and cared for. My upper most concern now was how to keep my relationship with Esther under wraps, and if Esther would be able to manage the rest of her life with Gary’s money.
But it also occurred to me that Gary might change his mind about his money if he should come to know of my one-night stand with Esther. Or was it going to be more nights?
Out of habit I picked up the book by the side of Amy’s bed. It was still on page 86. Amy hasn’t turned the pages.
Finally, I turned off the light at my side of the bed and fretted the night away.
Although I had always thought that Esther was attractive, sleeping with her was something that I had never dreamt of. Now that it has happened, I was not only shocked by my own acquiescence of Esther’s provocation, but also at my own lack of will power.
For the first time at dinner, I kept my mouth shut. I was afraid that anything I said would have revealed the episode, I wasn’t stupid enough to confess to Amy.
“How was the soup tonight?” Amy asked, in an attempt to make conversation, as usual.
“Oh, nice,” I said, “haven’t tasted something so special for a long time,”
“Gary! I cooked it just last night! What you mean not for a long time?!” Amy reproached me.
I finished my dinner and went away to watch television. They were showing the Taleban celebrating in Afghanistan.
The Chinese New Year came in late this year. I took out my new year decorations and put them up at the usual places. My house was small and it was always the same red lantern and the large sign of 福 that I kept year after year. This was supposed to be Amy’s job. I was getting tired of it and wondering if I should go out and look for new decorations. The mandarin oranges I decided not to buy until a week before the first day so that they could last throughout the fifteen days.
So, it was a surprise when Esther rang me on my handphone. We didn’t usually need to call each other since we met at the playground by default. In any case we were just neighbours our houses were only a few blocks away from each other.
But Esther sounded urgent. Her tone of voice was a little more excited than usual. She said without preface,
“Phillip, I need to see you as soon as possible,”
“How soon is that? I can’t walk away now, I have a patient coming up in half an hour,” I said, rather impatiently.
“No, this is more urgent, maybe after your patient you can call me, and then I tell you where to meet,” she replied.
“Does Amy need to be around?” I asked, I was still hoping for another rendezvous.
“Of course not!” I could hear Esther’s exclamation on the other side of the line.
“Ok, meet me at the hospital café at 5:00 pm, then we can go home together.” I concluded.
I loved my wife, Amy. Amy was pretty by anyone’s standards. She has a perfect oval face, and her features fitted nicely into it without them out doing the other. You only need to look at her once, and you would remember her when you saw her again. Apart from that, her voice was distinct with a kind of unique resonance. Many people considered me lucky in securing her hand, and even now, friends still envied me.
But Esther was different. She was vivacious, lively and her presence exuded energy and force. I was very taken in by her, but not in love with her. It was just some kind of infatuation. What happened on Christmas Day was totally out of character. I had meant to warn her, to tell her that her husband was dying, so that she would treat him differently, perhaps not as a dying man, but to give him some allowance. Yes, allowance was the word!
But the plot turned out to be otherwise. Instead, Esther has now become my mistress. With the imminent arrival of our baby, this was certainly not a welcoming prospect. I lived in jittery, fearful that in any of the things I said or did in our daily encounter, it would reveal the secret.
Yes, Esther told me that she was pregnant.
But Esther was a good actress. She behaved very normally, showing no special treatment or intimacy towards me whenever the six of us Gary, Esther, Joyce and Mark, Amy and myself were together.
The thoughts of a dying man were often bizarre and incomprehensible. This evening Gary told us that he planned to knock down the wall between their bedroom and the study. On top of that, Gary had moved to the guest room in his house.
I began to wonder if Gary had found out that Esther and I had slept on Christmas Day. They have no CCTV I was sure of that. I did not see anyone at the lift lobby when I went in and when I left. No one could have seen us. Unless it was Max. But how could Max convey what he saw – that Esther was on the bed with me, to its owner Gary? It was inconceivable!
Ok, no use guessing. Fact was that Esther was now pregnant. She told me that the baby was my child, but I only have her word for it. Esther might have slept with Gary on the very same night that I went over to their house on Christmas Day. I couldn’t deny paternal hood, that would have been cruel.
But assuming that the baby was Gary’s child, I would still be willing to take over as the father of the child. I had promised Gary that I would look after Esther.
In any case, Gary was dying, not that of my doing but that of his own ill health. I was beginning to look forward to Gary’s death. I started reading books on fatherhood and books on babies first years. Amy was always depressed living in her own world she did not realize what was coming.
I longed for Esther. But no sooner than I had entertained the thought, I realized that my duty and loyalty lay with Amy. Amy was my first love, my childhood sweetheart from college days, and she helped me in many ways in my career. No, I could not betray Amy. But fact was that I had already done so. I tried to blame Esther for the deceit but deep down I knew that I had wanted it too. There was nothing in that house that prevented me from pushing Esther away. I could have rejected her.
Of course, I couldn’t tell Amy about what happened on Christmas Day. That would have been a disaster. It would send Amy into further depression. She might even demand a divorce if not confront Esther. They were such good friends. I had to protect our marriage, and that of Gary and Esther as well.
I couldn’t help but recall the moments that I had spent with Esther. The scenes at her house kept replaying in my mind. Why was I so weak? What was it at the time that made me succumb to Esther’s provocation? And to think that I was a happily married man. I resolved that Amy must never know about this. It would hurt her deeply and hurt our relationship. No woman could tolerate her husband’s infidelity. Amy was no exception.
The daily playground meet had turned into a nightmare, it was no longer a merry gathering but a troublesome affair. I could not look into Gary’s eyes without a sense of guilt. He had told me to look after his wife when he was gone, but instead of which I had taken advantage of a dying man’s plea. I had slept with his wife even before he had vacated himself on his side of the bed. I was nothing but a lousy, wicked opportunist.
To make matters worse, Esther’s pregnancy had made it imminent for me to make a choice between she and Amy.
On the fifth anniversary between Amy and myself, I went ahead to Q.E. Jewelers to buy a gift for Amy. Amy had always liked jewelry. I chose an emerald ring as I noticed that Amy had outgrown all the other old ones that she had. I wanted to renew our wedding vows, never mind that I was going to be the father of the child of another woman. Who said that a man cannot have two wives?
After all, it was just one moment of weakness, done one time ....
I did not hear Tommy and Harry bark as I came in.
Quietly, without making a noise I peeped into the house. The lamp stood at the side of the fireplace, waiting for me to come back to turn it off. But what greeted me was an odourless stale sense of loss. I ignored it, as I felt a sense of urgency to go down to see if Amy was there. I wanted to put the present by her side of the bed to surprise her. No sound. “Yes, she is asleep,” I told myself. I took the steps down to the bedroom where I expected Amy to be – on the bed with Tommy and Harry by the foot ...
The dogs did not make a sound. Usually, they would jump up immediately to welcome me home. I did not notice anything unusual besides that. But then something was not quite right. Her side lamp was off.
“Why did she turn it off?” I asked myself. Usually, she left it on to wait for me. It was so dark I didn’t notice that Amy’s face was ashen green. And there was no breath coming out from her mouth.
I picked up the note by the side of her pillow.
Her phone by the side table rang. It was from an unknown caller. I picked it up straight away in case it disturbed the sleeping body.
“Hello,” tentatively I greeted the caller.
It was silent on the other end for a while. And then the caller hung up.
Alarmed, I wanted to see if it was meant for Amy. I tapped her on the shoulder. Her body did not move. And then I tried to turn her around to face me. I was eager to tell her that I still loved her.
But her body was stiff. And then I looked into her eyes. She was not asleep; her eyes were wide open. But she did not see me. Amy was dead.
The note from Amy read:
“Esther told me the truth. So, I have decided to release you from the trouble of filing for divorce and the burden of having to look after me and our child. God Bless!”
I helped Esther pull down the shade to shield little Alicia’s body from the sun. After a few cries the little girl stopped making a fuss. I went ahead of mother and baby to sit down at the bench in the park. Esther’s hat flew away, and I got up to pick it up. Afterwards I buried my head in the book “The Heart Has Its Reasons” by Wallis Simpson. I thought of the night at the graveyard again, Gary telling me to look after Esther. And now I knew, it was Gary’s wish. He knew that Esther and I were in love with each other, and he willingly abdicated. Nothing could replace Esther and Alicia now. I had not done a paternity test. I always believed that Alicia was my child as I wiped a tear from my eye. Doctors were also allowed to feel with their hearts, for they were only human.
It didn't matter if Alicia was really mine. As I have learnt from my parents, the true story was the one you believed.
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