By Gayle Goh
On the third day, the doorbell rang. Jean put down her tea by the sink. She rinsed her hands in running water, put her wet palms to her face, felt the rivulets run down her cheeks. The world turned cold and clear.
She opened the front door no more than a hand's width. A man hovered on the door-step. He was close enough for her to see the dark blotches of sweat on his white polo shirt; smell the faint odour of lemongrass and coconut milk wafting from his armpits, twice-boiled in the equatorial sun. His presence was large and unfamiliar.
"Madam," said the man, glancing at the iPad in the crook of his elbow. He tapped the glass panel with a plump finger. "Madam Toh, correct? My name is Henry Tan. I'm from eh, URA. Urban Redevelopment Authority. I would just like a moment of your time."
Tap-tap-tap, went his sausage-fingers on his iPad. He smiled at her, a practised balance of earnest and authoritative. She wondered what he was typing, how she would be itemised. Tap-tap.
"I'm not a Madam," said Jean. "I'm a Ms."
"Ah," said the man named Henry, with the barest flicker of the eyes at the greying temples of her hair. "Ms Toh. I'm here to follow up on feedback from your neighbours. Hm. If you don't mind, Ms. Toh. Could you share with me what you are doing, what you are doing in your front yard?"
Jean thought for a moment. She opted for the factual. "I'm digging a hole."
The man twitched. Jean found her gaze drawn to the sweat on his top lip, and below that, the dark green fragment of a laksa leaf in between his left upper molars. She felt an odd compunction, born of habit, she suspected, to reach out and pinch it away. Wipe the dew from his lip, and draw up the blankets around him.
"Ms. Toh," said the man. "I understand you are digging a hole. Could you, hm, could you share why?"
His fingertips lurked on his iPad. Jean pursed her lips. "I'm planting a tree."
The man twitched again.
"It's a big tree," she added.
"I see," said the man, tap-tap. "Yes, hm. It must be a very big tree."
They both glanced behind him, down the driveway to the yard where the excavator was parked. It was a merry, yellow little thing – small by industrial standards, but an excavator nonetheless. Long-armed and squat-bodied, it sat placidly on the garden's fringe, peeping over the gate; next to a mountain of soil and a yawning, two-by-two metre cavern in the earth.
Jean said, "It's fairly sized."
Their eyes met.
The man straightened with a grunt. He tucked his iPad beneath a wet armpit. "Ms Toh. I need to inform you that if you are planting a tree, no issue. Hm? No issue. Now, if you have something else in mind – and Ms. Toh, I have to say, that is a very big hole, ya? A very big hole – now, if you have something else in mind, you will need to seek URA's planning permission. Ya?
"And if you are seeking to build, hm, what we call it is an underground structure exceeding one thousand and five hundred millimetres below ground-level – which I note your, hm, hole, appears to far exceed – you will also need to seek the advice of the Building Construction Authority. It is a matter of structural safety, hm? Structural safety."
Jean smiled at the man politely. Be cooperative, she reminded herself. A good citizen, was Jean. "Of course. I appreciate your time, Mr. Tan."
The man nodded slowly. "In that case, Ms. Toh, I will be back tomorrow. And I hope," he rapped his iPad with a fingertip, "I will not have to write a report."
As he turned to leave, he hesitated.
"Please remember, Ms. Toh. Please remember," he added heavily. "I strongly suggest you seek the understanding of your neighbours. No one likes to be disturbed."
The man receded down the driveway. She watched him raise his iPad high above his head on his way out, to snap a picture of the hole in her yard. She didn't mind. It was a rather good hole, if she might say so herself. She had gotten the edges remarkably neat, for a novice; and it was deep, deeper than was wise, and at least twice the regulatory limits dispensed by the man named Henry. She was lucky, all things considered, that she hadn't hit a pipe or cable. Jean shut the door. It was time to make her final rounds.
She padded down the hallway, past the living room, and climbed the stairs. The upper floor of the house had not been used in years. The beds in the spare rooms had groaned with the weight of old clothes, broken toasters and faulty radios that Ma had never let her throw away. Now they were bare, and neatly made.
The family room had likewise been stripped clean. The electric chandelier in the centre of the corniced ceiling had stopped lighting up years ago. It had been the darling of the family when Pa had first installed it as a novelty, twenty-odd years ago. Now there was only the late afternoon sun to light the room's corners, dust motes convulsing in the beams.
Jean was satisfied with the upper floor. She descended the stairs, fingers trailing down the pockmarked wall as she took each step, tracing where the pictures used to hang. Again, past the living room, and a little further, into the kitchen. One by one, she checked the cabinets. Milo tins, baking powder, chicken stock. From the fridge, she retrieved a carton of soya milk. She hesitated, then replaced it. In a drawer, she found a Ziploc bag of pills she had earlier missed, which she slipped into her pocket.
Behind the kitchen was a small room with its door ajar. Jean pushed this open, and took a breath. The charred aroma of medicinal herbs still smothered the curtains. The springs squeaked as Jean seated herself on the foot of her low, thin bed – identical to Ma's deathbed, an arm's length away, built for one.
She looked to the wall mirror, and a little above it, the ticking clock. Half-past four. The coffin would be rolling its way into the furnace any time now. She had been to the Mandai crematorium briefly, to survey the arrangements. She could see it in her head. A white expanse, divided by a thin glass panel. On one side, the living. On the other, the dead. Jane would be there, of course. Jane would never miss the closing act. Jane, and her husband Chris with the slack jaws and stupid eyes. Their offspring, too: Rachel, who had recently graduated a doctor, and Brendan, who was training to be a pilot. Ruth, with her nice young man from Edinburgh, only recently returned to Singapore.
There would be others, a cousin or three, maybe a friend of Jane's from church. Not many: Ma's sisters and brothers were dead, and they had never been close, at any rate. But enough to weep and wail at a respectable volume, when Ma's coffin entered the flames.
Her phone rang.
Jane's voice hissed down the line, dark and angry. "Where are you? You haven't replied any of my messages. How can you not be here?"
I've been here a long time, Jean thought. But she withheld reply.
"Listen. I have to say this quickly. The coffin is here already. My church friend, you remember? Property agent. He knows a young couple who is interested to upgrade. They want landed property. Ready to buy – they will put down one point six million, easily. They're coming down to see Ma's house tomorrow. I told them it's available, once you move out. Your flat is ready, right? Go collect the key. Faster, don't delay."
"I'm almost ready," said Jean.
"Good. And be nice to them tomorrow. My friend said they want to hire a priest to cleanse the place, in case Ma is still there. Don't argue with them, they're religious. Ask them if they want any of the old things. Some are in quite good condition. But please ah, don't give away the tea set. The tea set is still there, right? You can't just get that off the shelf."
"The tea set is here."
"Good. Okay. It's time already. I have to go. Everyone is wondering where you are." A pause. Then, bitterly: "Ma is watching, you know."
There was a rustle, as though Jane had attempted but failed to hang up before jamming the phone into her purse. Jean heard a muffled, keening wail begin to rise. It was hoarse, and undulated on all the right notes. Ma-a-a-a, screamed Jane. Why have you left us, Ma-a-a-a.
Jean hung up.
She stared at herself in the mirror. White shirt, white pants; the cotton draped over her thin, dried body. A small black square of mourning cloth pinned to her sleeve. Forehead, with crinkles; nose, with a long, straight bridge; dark eyes, behind glasses; mouth, tightened by the years.
Jean and Jane looked like Ma. Everyone had always said they did. She could see it, too. The way her iron-grey hair would lighten to silver; grow thin and stretched over a flesh-pink scalp. Her brow would be ploughed with furrows. Almond pouches would sag beneath her eyes.
She glanced at the bed where Ma had lain dying. She could see herself there. She could feel the soiled sheets wrestling with her limp legs, could hear the croak from her mouth as she cried for soya milk. And Jean, the ghost-daughter, would get it for her – would pour it into her gaping fish lips, and the sweet drink of her childhood years would pass through her body, between her collapsing organs, and puddle in a bag.
Jean left the room.
From the cubby hole beneath the stairs, she retrieved the low metal trolley she would need for the rest of the day. She wheeled it to the living room, which she was glad the man named Henry hadn't seen. He would surely have been alarmed at the mass of clutter in the centre, bursting up against the peeling leather sofas pulled against the walls. Ceramic statues of the fat Buddha populated the room, like guests frozen at a house party; some standing, others lying flat, jowls laughing at the ceiling. Porcelain vases stood between them, in columns of uneven height. Pillars of clothes half-collapsed against cardboard boxes packed with obsolete gadgets.
It was time, Jean supposed.
Piece by piece, she dismantled the contents of her living room and loaded them on her trolley. Bend, set, heave. Through the hallway, over the lip of the door's front step. Down the driveway's slope, and onto the bumpy grass and soil, next to the hole. Back in the house. Repeat. She strained with the heavier things, the statues and the vases. But the lighter things, like garments and jewellery, were difficult in their own way; they fumbled and dropped and had to be run after.
At one point, she answered her phone: yes, the excavator would be ready for return in the morning, and full payment would be made. Jane called, too – but she ignored it. She hadn't heard from Jane for almost a year, before the past two weeks, and a while longer would not hurt.
Instead, Jean worked. She worked till her back prickled with sweat, and a hot flush came upon her. She worked as the ache in her lower back began to radiate to her shoulders, as the sun roared and lessened overhead.
By half past six, her garden overflowed with things. She had paid no attention to order. Things familiar and neglected, things lamented and resented, things that would be missed; they crowded together, as though conferring. Many had never been introduced, it occurred to Jean. I've been in the kitchen, and how about you; I've been in Jane's old bedroom. I played Pa's old tunes; well, I brought Ma her news, since she couldn't read.
Jean began to fill the hole.
First went the laughing Buddhas, head over heels, down the slopes, with a satisfying thump at the end. The vases, toasters, radios, the old mini-television set. Mediocre paintings, which Ma had avidly collected: prancing horses, swishing koi, the eight immortals crossing the sea. Frames split as they landed at odd angles. Fridge magnets flew; a frayed toothbrush co-mingled in the dirt with a chopstick. Tin mugs chimed as they collided with dinner plates. Cracked into a dozen pieces, went the old tea set.
Next, the clothes: the printed silks of cheongsams; brocade dresses and kebaya skirts; culottes and even denim jeans, from Ma's brief tangle with modernity. Then the broad-hipped pants and glitter-fronted t-shirts fished from the wet market, bearing messages like I © Paris and Love2U. Ma had worn these five-dollar skins carelessly with her jade bangles and gold necklaces. These trinkets followed, also.
Nearer the end, Jean tossed in the fabrics from those last days. She had washed these with her hands – spent hours squatted over a shallow tub, wringing out the stray fecal matter from the seams. They fell as cloth, deconstructed, in flat shapes missing a body.
As an afterthought, she reached into her pocket and emptied the Ziploc bag, scattering its pills into the pit.
Jean stood overlooking the hole. Something felt incomplete.
She dusted her hands on her waist; walked back into the house. Past the living room, through the kitchen, and into that small back room. She contemplated Ma's bed.
Then she gripped its long edge with her fingers, set her palms against the metal. She pulled it away from the wall. The bed screeched in protest, like some waking beast. Worming into the hollow between bed and wall, she slowly tipped the narrow bed onto its side. She clutched its blankets to its metal skeleton, binding the thin mattress from falling away.
She dragged that bed through the house. It scuffed the floor, banged up against the walls. It fought her, hit her knees, pressed the flesh of her hands into her bones. She could smell the sweet, plaintive stench of soya milk. She wrestled the bed out the door, over the step, down the driveway and into the garden. An inarticulate cry broke from her lips as she tipped the beast into the hole. The earth swallowed it.
Jean climbed into the excavator and turned the key. With a shaking hand, she pulled a lever. The long yellow arm craned across the yard to scoop into the pile of unearthed soil. The bucket turned, raining dirt on the battered grave of wood, glass, porcelain, cloth, metal. The gears rumbled, the hinges screamed.
Across the street, a light flickered on to illuminate a man's shape in the balcony. She briefly wondered if her new neighbours would have anything to complain about, in her flat with no garden, with no dying old woman but herself, to deserve a garden. But these thoughts she buried with her mother.
Ma-a-a-a, she sang to herself. Why have you left us, Ma-a-a-a.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018