A Safe Distance
By Linda Collins
I really have to get back to doing a couple of circuits of the hillside walk at our condo, amid this Covid "circuit breaker" lockdown of Singapore's. In fact, it's because of "CB", as everyone calls it (relishing the inadvertent Hokkien profanity), that I need to get walking again. I need to get fitter, trimmer. I've put on weight.
As soon as CB began, it triggered this hunker-down mentality in me. I completely stopped all outdoor fitness. I usually take a morning walk, but I couldn't face it. I thought I could simply exercise at home instead. The first few days, I rolled out my blue exercise mat, gathered the 1kg hand weights, propped up the iPad and clicked YouTube to play the ambitiously titled 20 Min Full Body Workout. But on Day Three, I just thought, "Nah, can't be bothered." So, weeks on, no fab bod, just a fat one.
I've tried to console myself with the fact that even if I did go out walking, wearing a mask would make it too unpleasant. My glasses fog up. I wouldn't be able to see. But I've let things slide too far. I don't like this person the CB is turning me into, someone content to be caged, living an inward-looking, condensed little life, detached from the outside world. I must do something, get out of the containment of the house, fight the seduction of solitude, the torpor it induces.
On with the walking shoes, and I'm out of the home. Masked. No foggy specs yet, though already the mask feels annoyingly itchy. I shut the front door quietly as my husband is still asleep after nightshift. He is one of the few who still go into the office. I hardly see him.
It's strange to view the front door from the other side. I hate to turn my back on the sanctuary within. But I force myself onward. At the top of the exterior steps, I see someone getting into a car, a woman in a business suit. I've only seen them around once or twice during the time I've lived here, but part of me wants to run up and hug this masked stranger (surgical grade), to experience a physical connection. Am I going mad? What would she think? She smiles, waves. That's nice. I wave back. Another strange feeling. Mutual unplanned real-time mask-to-mask human contact. Though from a distance.
I adjust my mask higher on my face, closer to my glasses, and head to the tennis courts and a jungle patch that has a winding uphill path through it. It's starting to look like Life After People. Untended grass pokes through the wire netting of the courts. On the path, I have to push back encroaching branches of trees. I have the place all to my human self, it's just me, the trees, and the birds. How stimulating to see birds close up, flitting about in flashes of colour, or in confident groups foraging amongst the grass. I get to the top of the hill path, and start descending the other side, to another part of the sprawling condo complex, where there are more apartment blocks. On the first steep step down from the hill, hidden from the walk upward, I'm surprised to encounter someone sitting there. It's a person vaguely familiar from the general neighbourhood: Tanita, a Filipina domestic helper. Usually – well, in pre-Covid days – she would hang out at the big park down the road with the others. But at the sight of this fellow human being whom I sort of know, it's all I can do to stop myself bounding up to her, grabbing her shoulders and saying a happy "Hi". I contain myself, assume nonchalance, and wonder about safe distancing. How far is a metre? It seems silly to observe this, when there's no one else around but us two. But it only takes a single contact to spread Covid, they say.
We exchange guarded greetings muffled by masks. Hers is standard single-use white-green, I am in washable black cotton. There's a wooden bench seat in an alcove next to us, but it is cordoned off from human contact with red-and-white tape, as if it were a crime scene. So I plonk myself on a step above Tanita, maybe a metre away, I can't really tell. But far away enough to have an obvious gap between us. It's awkward, it seems anti-social, almost rude, but you have to be careful, yeah? Both of us look at each other, spontaneously lower our masks and pretend not to notice the forbidden exposure that could incur a fine if detected. Then we smile, a fully encompassing eyes and mouth smile.
Even before the circuit breaker, I'd never encountered Tanita at that spot before, sitting like this in a dreamy way, looking out over the trees. Why this spot? It's mine, I like to think. It overlooks where my daughter Victoria died six years ago, among the carpark lots below. Sitting here on these concrete steps, we look directly across to the 10th floor of the facing apartment block from where she left this world.
Tanita herself had known Victoria, I recall, as she had been friends with the domestic helper we had employed. Was Tanita thinking of my daughter? It would explain the dreaminess and the choice of where she has stopped to sit. Did she want to be alone with her thoughts? I did not want to be alone with mine. But she sighs, starts talking fast, as if things are bottled up, and she is grateful I have come along, someone to unburden herself to, or at least make human contact with. I nod encouragingly, enjoying the freedom of seeing an unmasked face outdoors, open to where the conversation might go.
She explains that that the family she works for have moved to this condo from another nearby. They have taken an apartment on the 10th floor in the very building we can see now. I dare not say, from where Victoria went. I don't want to mention unpleasant things that might disturb Tanita or tarnish the move into the new home.
But Tanita is gushing that "Oh, ma'am, the view over the greenery is fantastic, so high up," and that there is a bedroom at the front, facing the trees, it is lovely, and airy, and large. She pauses, looks at me, and I realise that I've underestimated her. In a steadier, lower tone, she says that at first she was worried about living there. Every day she sees the place where Victoria died. She is upset. She has bad dreams. Tanita puts her hand over her heart, and I tear up and put my hand over my heart. Both of us sit there, separately, like that. Tanita tells me how it is a pain in the heart, that of the heart being torn, this loss of a person.
But now, she says, putting her hand down, speaking brightly, they have been there at this apartment for a while, she feels different, not so sad. She feels that Victoria is at peace now, and it is easy to be there living in that apartment at that block. Tanita says she thinks of happy times, of picking flowers there. She points to the barbecue pits and park benches directly below us, garishly covered in X marks and more red-and-white tape. Till she indicated the barbecue area, I hadn't even noticed we were so close to it. When I first saw her, she had been looking down, and so it must have been at the pits and benches. "That is where we would come," she tells me, and I say, "I didn't know Victoria knew you that well."
"Oh yes," says Tanita. "That table on the left there, see? That is where we would sit. Me, Erlinda, Tess, Matilda, and others and other children with Victoria. When the mothers are away at work or out shopping. We have picnics, cook corn, hot dogs, sometimes prawns, on the barbecue grill. Victoria loved that, she liked eating the roasted corn and the hot dogs. She would tend to them on the grill, turn them. It was happy times. We came here a lot."
We both stare down, imagining laughter, smoke from the grill, a child waving a strand of pink-bloomed bougainvillea with one hand, while with the other turning a skewer of roasting corn. I reach out, as Tanita reaches out to me, across the distance.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020