By Zhang Ruihe
Not again, she thought. The Malay man at the other end of the room was moaning no, calling out, shouting and the noise was interrupting her work. Ling frowned, squinted at the screen, tried to concentrate on the figures. It didn't help.
"Aaah... aaah... aaah..." It was impossible. Here she was, trying to make the best of a bad situation dad in hospital for the third time that month, final deadline for a major project just a few days away, the annual meet-the-parents session for the Sunday School kids coming up this weekend and this stupid old man had to interrupt her attempt at superwomanly multitasking with this incessant noise. He did this every evening, always at around the same time the time she arrived at the hospital after rushing there from work. And the worst of it was knowing she shouldn't be feeling this way, the poor man was ill, had been in hospital almost as long as her father had, hardly ever had anyone visiting him, was probably lonely and miserable. Look at how he was all curled up with his back against the bed-rail. He probably needed an outlet for all that pent-up frustration. How uncharitable of her to complain. And yet.
Outside, the sky deepened to a soft sooty blue. Evenings in Singapore were so lovely the trees tender and lyrical in the night breeze, the steady hum of traffic inviting, reassuring. She leaned against the window rails, gazed at the condominiums and office buildings on the horizon with their montage of orange and white lights hinting coyly at lives far, far away from her own. Ten floors down, cars scuttled across the road like giant beetles, made their escape through the carpark gantry.
Glancing at her sleeping father, Ling noticed that his head was lolling to one side again, so that he looked like a limp, ragged puppet abandoned by its puppeteer. That was the worst thing the stroke had done to him robbed him of his dignity. The nurses would be doing their rounds soon, giving the patients their medicine, taking their blood pressure, changing their diapers. She ought to adjust the pillow for him, but she was too tired, and this was such a minor problem. Let the nurses take care of it, if they could be bothered.
Ling liked watching the nurses at work. It was one of the few real pleasures that came with hospital visiting, the only thing, in fact, that provided any respite from the tedium of sitting there, day after day, waiting for time to pass. She loved their deft movements as they measured out medicine, administered injections, emptied bedpans the rhythm of it, the ritual, the illusion of order that she willingly gave herself to. Their conversations made her smile with their casual conjunction of medical jargon and workplace gossip. Such a pity that this beautifully uncoordinated dance had to be spoiled, in this room, by the old man's groaning.
"Patient in Bed 64 the wife wants to talk to the doctors tomorrow." The voice came from a junior nurse in white, crouched next to the old man's bed. She was emptying his catheter bag.
"Aiyah, she always wants to talk to the doctors..." A staff nurse in cornflower-blue scanned the notes in a case-file, before turning her attention to the rows of data lined up on the computer screen.
"Aaah... aaah... aaah..."
"Well, can't blame her, she's worried," the nurse in white said matter-of-factly.
"Hey, did you reduce the phenatoin dosage for Bed 62?"
Ling sat down again at her father's bedside. She sighed, switched off her MacBook. She knew she wouldn't be able to get any more work done this evening. Anyway, it was far more interesting, listening to the exchange between the nurses.
"Aaah... aaah... aaah..."
"Aiyah, poor thing. So sim tiah, listening to him..." The junior nurse's voice softened as she pulled off her latex gloves and turned once again to the staff nurse.
"He's not the only one. Surely you're used to it by now."
"When his family comes, he gets even louder. I think he wants attention."
"Then no wonder they don't come. It's hard for them. What can they do."
What can they do. What can we do. It wasn't a question. Ling had heard so many variations of this in the years following her father's first stroke. There was a long pause in the conversation. The pestle-and-mortar the staff nurse was using to grind pills into powder sounded sharp and loud against the whirr of the ceiling fans.
"You know, I heard that he used to be some kind of religious leader, in the Muslim community." Both nurses were now at just one bed away from Ling's father.
"Oh You mean, in the whole of Singapore?" The staff nurse frowned slightly as she measured out a powdery white liquid into a syringe.
"Not sure. But look at him now, and the family doesn't seem to care..."
Something stirred at the back of Ling's mind, the slightest touch of a childhood memory. What was it.
"Aaah... aaah... aaah..." It was relentless. Ling pressed her lips together and sighed.
"They always want attention... Sian "
"Are you OK? Why so sian?"
"No lah, it's just... Never mind. But yah, this one's always making so much noise. Donno what he wants."
A tendril of memory brushed against the edges of Ling's consciousness. It was evening. She was eight, travelling with her parents up to Penang to visit their relatives, her cheek pressed against the window of their Volkswagen Beetle as she watched the sky darken outside. The glass felt cold and clean on her skin. On the horizon, wisps of rust-coloured cloud hung like silk scarves draped against a background of blue-grey velvet. Ling looked at the side-profiles of her parents' faces, now quiet and still after a whole afternoon of conversation. They were driving through a small town.
"So what kind of leader was he? Where did you hear this from anyway?"
"Aaah... aaah... aaah...."
"I think someone saw something in his file. Or maybe they heard from the family. But he was some really important guy, that's for sure."
They drove past shophouses with their window-shutters wide open and small children standing shyly in the doorways. Further out, near the outskirts of the town, they passed by zinc-roofed houses with chickens and cats moving languidly, almost in slow-motion, across their compounds. There was no other traffic on the road. A small red bicycle leaned against the wall of one house, its front wheel angled towards the road. The trees stood hushed and still, their leaves almost black against the evening light.
Beyond the fast-receding houses, half-obscured by the trees, the pale gold dome of the local town mosque rose into the sky. Ling leaned back into the cool leather, closed her eyes, was about to allow the murmur of the car engine to lull her to sleep and then she heard it. In the distance, a deep, resonant voice was chanting words in an unknown tongue, its cadences rising and falling, as if carried by the ebb and flow of the ocean on an empty beach. "Allah u Akbar Allah u Akbar " All else seemed to fall into a hovering, expectant silence. The call of the muezzin echoed in the spaces between each word, summoning the faithful to prayer.
Ling sat up, startled out of her reverie. An unbidden sense of knowingness settled on her like an annunciation. She tried not to stare at the old man across the room, but something forced her to look. He was lying there, one leg hooked over the bed-rail, pale green hospital pyjamas draped over his skeletal frame. His face was dark and hollow. For a brief moment, his eyes met hers as the habitual sound issued from his mouth "Aaah... aaah... aaah..." She felt a fleeting impulse to walk over to his bed, touch him on the forehead, speak on his behalf the ancient call to prayer that struggled for articulation on his lips. But no. She had never spoken with the man, never even greeted him or smiled at him. It felt too late to start now, and besides, she was afraid of startling him, of getting the sacred words wrong. The man looked straight at her with an intensity that compelled even as it reproached. She flinched, snatched her glance away, embarrassed and ashamed.
The last rays of sunlight had long fled the evening sky. A cheerful four-note arpeggio sounded over the intercom. "Attention all visitors. The time is now 7.45pm. Visiting hours will be over in 15 minutes. Please allow our patients to rest. Thank you." Ling stayed unmoving on the edge of her chair, her eyes focused on a rust-brown stain on the wall. After a long while, she stood up, saw that one of the nurses had put her father in a more comfortable position, picked up her handbag, and left the room. Perhaps she would ask the nurses tomorrow if there was anything she could do for the old man. But for now, it was time to get home. She had a lot of work to do.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013