By Phan Ming Yen
As I watch the city being ravaged by mounting deaths, I wonder if I will see him again.
I wonder if I will see his single-storey house in the countryside, which is one and a half hours by bus away from the city centre. I wonder whether I will see the darkness he peered out to each night. And I wonder what he was most afraid of. Not the snakes which had eaten 20 of his 23 chickens. Nor the animals that prowled the land from dusk till dawn. Nor the insects which came in through open windows to die by the light in the rooms.
Not any of these.
"All that I am not afraid of, Ma'am," Agus said one evening, and the only time we left the office together after work, and had time to chat at length. "What I am most afraid of are ghosts."
Agus was the first person I met from the head office on the day of my arrival in the capital.
After years working at those provincial branches in charge of the company's property developments around the country, I finally received a promotion to work at the head office. Senior management needed someone to oversee marketing and communications for the entire group, and they told me that, with my experience, I was the most suitable person for the job.
I am from a small town in the agrarian South Western provinces and the only one in my family who had ever left town, all thanks to my job which has allowed me to travel across the country except the Central province. The promotion was a treat, even for someone my age.
When I went home to spend time with my mother just before the posting, she warned that the capital was a dangerous place, and that bad things happened to women there.
"Ma, I'm already over 40. Who would want to look at me, let alone want someone like me?" I said over dinner comprising rice and vegetables, in our living room cramped with old furniture and which was lit by a single bulb.
"What about your health then?" my mother replied, her hoarse voice cutting through the sound of the cicadas outside. "Air in the provinces is cleaner. People who come back from the Central say it is dirty there. Why must you go? If you are not careful, you are going to fall sick."
I arrived on a Sunday, and even though it was the weekend, management had made all the necessary arrangements so I could settle in as quickly as possible.
They said the Head of Housekeeping would take care of me upon my arrival, and indeed Agus was already waiting for me when my taxi turned into the entrance of the residential block.
He was shorter than me, but he had a stocky build and broad shoulders. His handshake was firm, his gestures swift and precise, and he had a smile that was also in his eyes.
"You have a good flight, Ma'am? Where did you fly in from, Ma'am?" he asked brightly as he helped me with my luggage, and then in one seamless move, wheeled them through the lobby into the lift, then up to the apartment. "You been to the city before, right?"
The apartment, a corner unit on a high floor, looked out over the city to the low-lying hills of the Eastern provinces. There was a dining area, a kitchen, a spacious living room, a master bedroom with an attached bathroom, and another smaller bedroom.
"The city is very different from the provinces. You probably heard that sometimes you feel like you can't breathe. It's all traffic, traffic, traffic," Agus said as he carried my luggage into the apartment. "But I hope you will like it here. This apartment has a good view. Boss told me you must be treated well. He said you are very important, Ma'am."
"Ah, you can leave the luggage here," I said. "And, oh, don't call me Ma'am. Just call me Leilani, or you can call me Lei."
"Okay, Ma'am," he said, with a smile and a nod of his head. "You can text me any time, Ma'am. Boss told me to take care of you. And oh, Ma'am, can we take a photo together so I can send to Boss and show that everything is okay?"
The way Agus intoned vowels and inflected words at the end of his sentences sounded like a dialect I heard as a child.
"Yes Ma'am," he replied as he took out his mobile phone and looked for a place to take a wefie. "I am from the South also, not far from where you come."
As we smiled into the phone, I felt it was going to be a good start for this new stage of my life.
Two weeks after I moved in, Agus texted to ask when housekeeping could come over to clean the apartment and give me a new set of linens. I was surprised. Cleaning services was not part of the package. Agus simply replied with a smiley-face emoji and "It's okay, Ma'am."
I left a packet of mixed nuts and a note for him at his desk the following day. Agus had a cubicle in the office but he only came in early in the mornings or late in the evenings as he spent most of the day on-site at the company's various properties.
The duties and responsibilities of my new portfolio turned out to be far more overwhelming than I had expected. I would only contact Agus when I had problems with the apartment. There was always something that needed fixing – flooding from the washing machine, a blown fuse in the circuit breaker due to a thunderstorm, or a choked valve in the water dispenser.
Often, Agus came to the apartment swiftly after I texted even though I told him there was no hurry. He never kept me waiting. Nor did he let up on the housekeeping.
When at first I felt an itch in my throat, which turned into a cough, and finally a sore throat, I thought it was just my old illness acting up. I took lozenges and the usual medication for sore throat, hoping the pain would all go away.
A few days later, when the first case of the virus infection in the city was reported, I decided not to go to office and told the management I would work from home.
I was surprised to receive a text from Agus that day, asking if I needed housekeeping. I said that it would be better if he did not come by. He sent me a smiley-face emoji and said he would leave a bag of fresh linens for me outside my apartment instead. At the same time, I did find myself wishing for help in changing the sheets for I was beginning to feel ache throughout my body.
The fever came soon after.
Later, when I was in the hospital, the nurse told me Agus had come by. He must have known the risks involved in visiting, and that he would not be allowed inside the communicable disease ward. Still he tried. The nurse said he left a gift for me although I never got to see it.
Afterwards, I felt bad that he and his team had to clean up after me.
They did it all in one day. I saw the workers, all masked and gloved-up, using kitchen tongs to throw all my things into black trash bags – the fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator which had gone bad, my clothes, the toiletries and feminine hygiene products, my laptop, any belonging of mine I had touched.
And then I saw Agus. He was standing, back towards me, a folder in hand that he kept referring to. He walked around the apartment, examining each appliance, each fixture. Every now and then, he would stop and look around, as if searching for something.
I called out to him several times.
At first, he seemed not to have heard me. It was some time before he turned slowly. He was also masked. He looked at me and I thought I saw a smile in his eyes. But I was mistaken. He dropped the folder and, before I knew it, was out of the apartment.
At first, I was puzzled. I had just gone back to thank him for having taken care of me. Then, when I was about to leave the apartment to look for him, I understood. I remembered what he was most afraid of.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020