By Cyril Wong
"What do you mean I cannot see him?" Margaret asked, her voice a little too loud.
The nurse behind the counter, a stout Eurasian woman with curly hair and an oily face, looked flustered. "I mean, ma'am, that only immediate family can see Mr Tham."
Margaret wanted very much to stab her. She was a lawyer who had been educated in Oxford. She did not have to take shit from anyone. Instinctively, she stood as tall as she could manage in her heels. But she also realised that she could only be making things worse. The nurse was dying to move away from the counter and scuttle off to do what people like her did in these depressing places. Margaret thought that perhaps she might be coming across as unreasonable. She decided to adopt a different strategy.
Margaret burst into tears.
The nurse almost gasped, eyes widening, as the petite Chinese woman with the severe bangs started to cry in front of her. "Ma'am " the nurse exclaimed, quite helplessly.
"Jeffrey... Jeffrey is my best friend, my childhood friend... if this is the last time I'll be able to see him... are you sure you... you can't... make an exception for me to see him?"
Margaret was lying, of course. Jeffrey was her colleague. They had been working at the same law firm in Shenton Way for just a few years. She was used to putting on different personalities at work and before her clients in order to get what she wanted. It was easy for her. She could have been a successful actress, if acting had paid as well as being a corporate lawyer. But these tears that were presently spilling down her face Margaret realised they were pouring up from a deeper place within her than she had intended. Margaret and Jeffrey did not work closely in the office, but they always had lunch together at various restaurants around town. They had been drawn to each other quite by accident. He had casually asked her out for lunch and she had agreed. Some people eventually thought they were an item, but they did not know that Jeffrey was not interested in her; he was not interested in women. Margaret knew from the way he talked and walked that he was gay; not that he was overtly effeminate, but Margaret simply had a keen sense for such things. During their meals together, he would openly ogle other men walking past their table and she would tease him about it. She would sometimes join in and ogle as well, passing judgements along with Jeffrey about who was cute and who looked like the walking dead. Lunchtimes with Jeffrey were fun.
"I'll help you, ma'am," the nurse was telling Margaret, having a change of heart. She even appeared a little guilty now. "Come with me..."
Margaret smiled to herself. The trick worked. At the same time, as she was following the nurse down an empty corridor, she thought about what she had just said. The last time I'll be able to see him... Jeffrey had not been to work for a week. Worried, Margaret had called his home and his sister, whom she had never met, had picked up to say that Jeffrey was in very bad shape; he was in the Intensive Care Unit at a private hospital and she did not really know how long her brother had left. Was it an accident? Did Jeffrey fall? Did he get knocked down by traffic? Jeffrey's sister had said no, but did not elaborate further. She had only told Margaret where Jeffrey was being treated.
The nurse brought her to a room enclosed by glass. Margaret's first impression was that it looked like a giant glass coffin, but then she noticed that only one of its walls was glass, and it slid open as they approached. "You only have ten minutes," the nurse told her, embarrassed and not quite daring to look her in the eye. "The patient needs to rest."
Margaret moved silently and slowly into the glass coffin, wiping tears from her face, as the nurse hurried awkwardly out of the room. The smell of antiseptic flooded her nostrils. The man in the bed was clearly Jeffrey. The room was freezing, which explained why the blanket was pulled all the way up to his neck. But his nose, mouth and throat were hidden by a large, transparent mask and various tubes. In fact, she noted with a growing sense of horror, a particularly large tube was running out from his throat, where a hole had been made, and connected to a machine beside the bed. Jeffrey's eyes were closed. Was it certain that Jeffrey would die? He looked so pale and withered. Maybe there was another explanation. Surely all this would pass.
"Jeffrey?" she asked in a soft, tentative voice. What was she expecting, a reply? How could he speak with that tube sticking out of his throat? Jeffrey remained asleep. She could hear him breathing: a chilling, rasping sound. He could not hear her. What was she really doing here? She wanted to find his hand under the blanket and grab it. She could see the small shape of it hidden by layers of cloth. But she was afraid, as if touching him might cause him to crumble into dust like something in a horror movie.
Margaret suddenly felt as if she could not breathe. She turned and headed for the exit. The glass door that served as a fourth wall slid open and shut behind her with a low hiss. She strode down the corridor, past the nurses' counter, and then out into another corridor that opened up into a waiting room. There were sofas arranged around a low table with a vase of plastic flowers. She plonked down on a sofa, trying to think about what to do next.
Someone sat down discreetly beside her. She almost jumped.
"Sorry to surprise you, Margaret," said the lady who had sat down. "The nurse told me someone had come to see Jeffrey. I assumed it was you."
The woman was in her late forties, but slim and with long black hair. She was taller than Margaret and wearing a hideous, dark blue, floral dress that contrasted with Margaret's white shirt and yellow skirt in an almost comical way.
"Jennifer, Jeffrey's older sister. We spoke on the phone. You are... the first friend of Jeffrey's I've met in a long time."
She began to tell Margaret about what happened to Jeffrey. She had visited him at his home and found him lying on the floor, unconscious. The doctors said he had contracted pneumonia. They also said his immunity was low. Then Jennifer went silent. In any other situation, Margaret noted that she would never speak to or be friends with a person like Jennifer, who was too soft-spoken, too typically feminine.
"How did his immunity get so low?" Margaret asked. "Was he already sick before this? Did he catch something? He hadn't been travelling or anything."
Suddenly, Jennifer asked, "Are you... his girlfriend?"
Margaret was stunned. She frowned. "You must be kidding, right?"
"Sorry, I just wondered..."
"You know Jeffrey is gay, right?"
Margaret almost regretted saying what she did, because Jennifer sharply looked away. But Margaret had the feeling that Jennifer was far from traumatised; in fact, she did not look terribly surprised. She just looked slightly pained. For a moment, Jennifer said nothing to acknowledge what Margaret had declared. Jeffrey's sister had such an annoyingly sheepish face; and what Margaret had said seemed to hurt her in some invisible way. Margaret wanted to say something more to shock and hurt her, but she had to play her cards right. She wanted to find out more about what was happening to Jeffrey, even though it was beginning to dawn upon her that this woman was hardly a fountain of useful information.
"No, I didn't know. Jeffrey and I are... not close. He doesn't say much... to me."
Margaret resisted the urge to be sympathetic. She had just caught a glimpse of the silver crucifix hanging around the woman's skinny neck. Was Jeffrey a Christian too? Or did he behave one way with his family and another with Margaret when they were both ogling boys over lunch? Was Jennifer somebody he had to lie to on a regular basis because he had to stay closeted at home? Margaret decided to change the topic. She needed to know more about Jeffrey's condition.
"What else did the doctors say about what is wrong with Jeffrey?"
"That's all they said. Pneumonia. Infection in the lungs."
Pneumonia, lung infection, a compromised immunity... Did Jeffrey have AIDS? Had he been HIV-positive all the time that they had been working together? Margaret understood why it was hardly ever reported that people died as a result of AIDS; revealing this would create problems with the insurance companies. There would be no payouts if such companies found out it was AIDS that killed their precious clients. Doctors always wrote "pneumonia", or some other infection-related affliction, on the final paperwork. Secrecy was par for the course.
Jennifer probably knew nothing about any of this. She seemed like a stupid woman, with her blank stares and embarrassed looks. Margaret wondered if she should enlighten Jennifer about the full implications of "pneumonia", but decided against it. In any case, she did not want any unnecessary drama, especially not at this moment with Jeffrey's sister.
Margaret sighed with impatience. Another question rose to her lips, one that made them quiver now as she articulated it. "Did they tell you ... how much time he has left exactly?"
Jennifer had not been looking at her, but Margaret realised that Jeffrey's sister was crying; not loudly, but a rivulet was coursing down her cheek.
"They said... maybe a week, or maybe ... I keep praying there might be a miracle..."
A miracle? What kind of miracle? A miracle from God? Margaret wanted to yell. But she bit her lip and focused her thoughts on Jeffrey. Jennifer's tears were also stirring something in her. Margaret hated feeling increasingly sympathetic towards this person. She thought about Jeffrey and how he had never mentioned anything about sleeping around. His sex-life had been hidden from her. She had just assumed that, like her, he did not get any sex because of how much work they had to complete on a weekly basis. So he found time to meet other men? Did he have unprotected sex? A dwindling part of her wanted to direct such questions to Jennifer, just to see her go white and crumble from the inside. She was tired of religious people who saw nothing beyond their own selfish delusions about God and the afterlife; who refused to live in the present moment and care for other people without worrying whether they would go to heaven or hell. Her own parents had been Catholic; they had kept compelling her to follow them to church on Sundays. When they had passed away of old age years ago, Margaret had finally been glad to live on her own. She was happy to lead her busy and lonely but still fiercely independent life.
Margaret reminded herself that she had to play nice if she wanted to keep coming to visit during the last stretch of Jeffrey's life. She did not want this whimpering creature to get in her way when she came again to see him in the Intensive Care Unit. "Look, Jennifer. Jeffrey ... just needs to be comfortable right now. I think that is the most important thing. He also needs to be surrounded by those ... who care about him. Don't you agree?"
Jennifer was nodding. Her tears had stopped. She wiped her face in a manner that reminded Margaret of herself. Margaret tried not to dwell on this similarity. Jennifer then looked up sideways to peer at Margaret. She had a shy but kind face, Margaret noted suddenly, regardless of her delusions and ignorance regarding her brother's life.
"I just wished ... I just wished I knew more about Jeffrey," Jennifer started to confess. "He was always the quiet one in the family. The only boy, with three older sisters. My sisters are overseas right now but they are flying right back to see Jeffrey. We must all pray for him together. You're his good friend, right? Can you tell me ... can you tell me more about my brother?"
Margaret realised how little she really knew about Jeffrey or his family; she only knew that his parents were dead and gone. He had never mentioned his sisters. Jeffrey's sister was obviously asking now in all sincerity about her secretive younger sibling. Yet Margaret had practically nothing to offer. As she tried now to remember the last thing he had said to her, nothing came to mind; it was even getting difficult just recalling the sound of his speaking voice at this very instant. She only recalled his laughter, the way he tossed his handsome head back to laugh, the wisp of his black hair catching the light. "We were always ... hanging out. We were close ... at work. He was ... "
Why was she speaking in the past tense? She corrected herself. "Jeffrey is a very close friend. We have a lot of fun together at work. You can even say he is my best friend. We are always at work, even until late at night, so we never have time for anybody else. He makes me laugh. We like gossiping about other people, making fun of others, especially fellow colleagues ... he has a really great sense of humour ... "
Margaret was grasping at straws. Was the totality of her bond with Jeffrey composed of gossip, gentle teasing, and the crude analysis of men over a meal?
Jennifer looked slowly down at the carpeted floor as she spoke again. "Do you know if he was ... seeing anybody?"
What could Margaret say to that? "I ... I have no idea, actually. I guess ... Jeffrey never said that much about his personal life. He was a work colleague, even a friend, but we didn't share everything, I suppose, now that I think about it; even though we did hang out with each other every day."
Jennifer was nodding politely as Margaret spoke. Did a close friendship mean having to tell each other everything? What was wrong with having some secrets? Margaret decided to say a little more, "I mean, don't misunderstand me, I know we were good friends. It's just that we found no need to reveal too much about our private lives to each other."
Margaret thought about how little she would have to share with Jeffrey anyway, even if she wanted to. Her life was a constant back-and-forth between home and office, office and home. Had Jeffrey been going out to meet other men after work and during weekends? Was that why he sometimes appeared tired in the mornings with dark half-rings under his eyes? He often suggested that he suffered from insomnia. Did he even know that he had been sick?
This thought made Margaret ask, "Did your brother ever tell you he was ... ill?"
Jennifer shook her head. Now she was staring off into the distance. Margaret noticed for the first time that there was a window on the other side of the room, but its thick grey curtains were closed, preventing any light from piercing through. What time was it anyway? She had arrived here late afternoon, having left work early. Surely it was night time now.
"It's getting late," Jennifer suddenly said. Margaret looked around to see if there was a clock on any of the walls, but could not find one. She looked back at Jennifer, who had an unreadable expression on her face. It was another blank look. But she also appeared distantly to have made up her mind about something. "Thank you, Margaret, for what you have said. I love my brother, even though he was always so ... quiet. I'm sure, as a friend, you cared for him too. In fact, we both know so little about him ... Please come back and see him again when you can. I'm going now. I need to go back to my husband and kids."
With that, Jennifer stood up, nodded awkwardly to no one in particular, and walked out of the waiting room before Margaret could reply. Margaret stood up as well and felt foolish for doing so. She watched Jennifer's long back as the latter was leaving the waiting room. Margaret sat back down again. It felt rude to have not said goodbye. Neither of them had said goodbye.
After a few more seconds, Margaret rose again. She needed to see Jeffrey one last time before she left the hospital herself.
She walked back down the corridor that led to Jeffrey's room and crept inside. Jeffrey had not moved; his eyes were still shut. She was afraid to touch him through the blanket, let alone clutch his hand. Margaret began to speak, "I'm sorry, Jeffrey ... "
She realised she was whispering, which was unnecessary. There was nobody else in the room. She spoke a little louder, "What I mean is ... I'm sorry I never asked you more about your life. I always thought ... I always thought that we would have time to ... "
Touching her own face quite unthinkingly, she noticed that she was crying again. This was a record. She had never cried twice on the same day. The last time she had shed genuine tears was at the cinema. It was a film she had caught while still studying at Oxford. The movie had been a love story. She could not remember the title of it. The man in the film had been dying. The woman in the film was confessing at his deathbed that she could not let him go. Margaret told herself afterwards that she had been too sentimental. Movies had no connection to everyday existence. Movies over-romanticised everything. Love was so much more complicated in real life, she had decided, even though she had never been in love. And now where would Margaret have the time to find love? Work was a slow but constant killer. Unlike Jeffrey, she had no life beyond the office and the tedium of banal household chores at home over weekends. There were not even any nagging parents to look after. She was all alone. She was going to die alone.
Without warning, she thought Jeffrey was smiling, just slightly, or maybe struggling to smile through the weight of the mask and the mess of tubes rising out of him like tentacles. The next instant, the smile, or the ghost of it, vanished. Had Margaret imagined it? Was she losing it? She stared long and hard at Jeffrey. He looked the same as he did before, still and lifeless. His breathing remained a mechanical lullaby. Brushing tears off her face a second time today, she turned and left the freezing room, the ward, the whole goddamn hospital.
She paused outside in the humid night air. A few cars whispered past on the main road in the distance. The nearby taxi stand had no queue. She drifted towards it and waited for a cab to pull up. She wanted to go home. Again, she realised, she had not said goodbye this time to Jeffrey.
After a few seconds, a taxi drove up and slithered to a halt. The male, middle-aged driver inside craned towards his side window to glare at her, waiting expectantly for her to climb in. But Margaret just stood there, arms folded, staring at a point somewhere over the roof of the vehicle, gazing even beyond the distant street, past a few trees, and far into a night devoid of stars.
For a third time that day, Margaret started to cry.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014