No Room for the Dead
By Reginald James Kent
Victor doesn't need to read the death certificate. He dons his personal protective equipment and respirator, taking in a deep breath through the filters. It is stage four ovarian cancer that has spread in spite of the chemotherapy.
Ze Chian had discussed his mother's final arrangements with her long before; it had given Victor hope at the beginning of their relations; perhaps Ze Chian could understand his work.
"You know my mother doesn't care about what happens to her body after she dies." Ze Chian stirs syrup into his cold brew, sounding muffled in the clamour of the hospital's Starbucks. "But my grandfather is adamant about having a wake."
It isn't against the rules but Victor hasn't heard of anyone in the industry preparing someone they knew. It must happen; there aren't many mortuaries in Singapore, not many embalmers. You keep a distance from the people you prepare, for good reason. Victor's own mother had died before he finished his A-Levels. He sighed. Ze Chian knows what his job entails.
"I won't even consider it if you're not into it," Victor says.
Ze Chian taps his temples. "She's fading, but she'll always be in here. This is for the rest of the family. You don't have to worry; I'm not looking into the casket."
Pictures of Victor's own mother from the early nineties, still wearing an outdated big bouffant, like Dolly Parton. "It cost me a lot of money to look this cheap," the country star had professed. This summed up what he did. Why does it cost so much to take a last look at a body? He'd hear his father, funeral director, trying to calm down a customer. They'd ask, "What do you even do to my mother? Why do I have to pay to see her?" It is often worth paying to take a last look. Bodies – freshly passed – are not pretty sights. The nonsense on CSI skewed what most thought of death. The dead on television were Adonises and Aphrodites. CSI never featured the old man sapped by lung cancer, the child decimated by leukaemia, or the coma patient covered in bedsores.
Victor prepares himself. Ng Bee Leng has already been put on the highest allowed dose of morphine, there is nothing to do but wait. He'd try to imagine she was someone else's mother. Victor's father doesn't think this particular undertaking is a good idea, but he understands what love makes you do. He would have done anything for his late wife. She is the only reason he and Victor are still talking. After his O-levels, Victor heard his mother shouting through the thin apartment walls, "You're what? Ashamed? If they have a problem, they aren't your friends. He is your son; I will not live like this." Victor wished it were his father instead of her. She had defied her generation, defied convention, expanded her definition of love for him: she'd only ever opened her mouth after opening her eyes.
Ng Bee Leng is transported from the morgue. Victor is relieved the discoloration is limited – she is just paler than usual. Bodies can decay to shades of black and orange. He wipes her down, averting her gaze; as with many of his charges, her eyes are open. These are eyes he knows.
"So, what makes you think you're good enough for my Ze Chian?" she had said, glaring at him the first time he was invited over. She was pointing with a pair of white chopsticks, still tinged with the sticky sweet ruby molasses covering the roast pork dinner. Ze Chian was about to protest, but Victor knew his answer.
"Aunty, your son makes me the happiest I've ever been. I don't know if I'm good, but I want to do whatever I can to make him happy."
Whatever makes Ze Chian happy, Victor thought – reaching for his first tool on his stainless-steel dissection trolley – is whatever makes you happy, Aunty. He loads the curved needle with a sturdy thread of nylon. He focuses on the procedure.
1. Part her lips (which you find unfortunately curled).
Victor trims the eye caps. Like the mouth former, they are films of silicone perforated with spikes. After cutting them to the right size, he slips them under her lids to hold them in place: modern coins for the ferryman. Ze Chian has her eyes, especially when he's sleeping; his long eyelashes swoop upward, forming a pincer with his downward tilting brows. There is never enough time with him. Embalmers don't have days off; when you get the call, you get the call. Ze Chian gives up on making bookings for date nights. He stops promising his friends that his boyfriend will join them; he makes it clear that he will go out with, or without him.
They rent a little studio in Chinatown but even while they share the same space, weeks pass where they barely see each other. Victor comes home, opens the fridge, and finds a simple dinner. A homemade chicken wrap, or wanton noodles from the hawker center. He unpacks it and still smells formaldehyde. On the dining table, Ze Chian's laptop is still aglow. Email correspondences between him and his suppliers chronicle new spice routes from Java to Europe. Victor, having showered at the mortuary, just strips when he gets into the bedroom, finding his partner curled up on his side of the mattress. He becomes his big spoon, half-afraid the scent of chemicals will wake Ze Chian. Some days he thinks of quitting, but this is all he knows: Victor only sees how things die.
7. Dilute the embalming solution.
Ze Chian moved out of the studio six months ago. He tells Victor that with his mother being so sick, it's best that he returns to the family home. Maybe it'd be best if they take a break. Victor doesn't protest.
"You know that's the problem with you," Ze Chian says. "There was only one thing you fought for – that embalming diploma. Everything else you just said yes. I need you in the business. Yes. Come to the mortuary now. Yes. Can you make it tonight? Yes. But it doesn't work when you have to take that yes back. You can't keep saying yes, even for me. Because I end up waiting for someone who never comes for me."
Victor considered a life of celibacy after his mother died; he'd wondered if he would ever be loved again. All he has of her that isn't preserved in him, is his father's embalming of her, her visage that he sees in the back of his irises. No one has enough time to say goodbye, that's why families bring fading wedding portraits to place at the head of caskets: It's a hope in the double negative; that fading will cancel out fading. The marvels of modern technology and the macabre are indistinguishable. What took the ancient Egyptians months, he does in hours. There is a price to pay. Mummification preserves bodies in the dryness, close to indefinitely, but his handiwork comes apart quickly, which is why the bodies are cremated. Partially why, anyway. In this tiny city-state, with land at a premium, there is no room for the dead.
There are no canopic jars to hold Ng Bee Leng's internal organs for the afterlife. No pyramid to direct her soul to Anubis, who weighs it on a scale against a feather. But perhaps Victor is standing in for Amut, the half crocodile, half-lion waiting to devour a heart too heavy. He retrieves his trocar, readying the oversized syringe to stab her.
12. Puncture her abdominal cavity. Turn on the suction to aspirate, removing any gas or liquid arising from the process of decomposition – along with any feces left in the body. Let this glide down the drain with her blood.
Victor's mother didn't want a wake. Was it a slap to his father's face? Victor thought it was a small mercy. How could his father give her to anyone else? How could his father oversee the embalming of her body? She made her wishes clear: direct cremation, no-frills. She was rolled into the incinerator in a plywood coffin; though his father had wanted to put her in the most expensive casket he owned. Victor had read that in the UK there was a crematorium that used the burning of bodies to heat up a swimming pool in winter. His mother would have loved that. He remembers the trips they had taken to the community swimming complex, how she taught him to float on his back, how he felt weightless.
Ng Bee Leng's corpse weighs on him; she had never thought he was good enough for her son. She was right; three missed birthdays and two no-shows during Chinese New Year don't leave the best impression. Neither did the embalming. "At least you got a steady income, I guess," she told him, one of the times he did make it to dinner.
17. Use mortician's wax to smooth out any abscesses in her face.
Two weeks after the funeral, Victor meets Ze Chian for boba at Chinatown Point. His boyfriend slurps the milky tea through a straw wide enough to carry the black tapioca pearls. Victor has read in a Straits Times article that the black balls are carcinogenic, but who is he to talk? He works with formaldehyde for a living. He never drinks the stuff; the straw reminds him of his trocar. As they walk toward Hong Lim Park, Ze Chian asks, "Does it go away?"
"The house being quiet. The silence."
Victor thinks of crates as large as coffins carrying spices from South East Asia to Europe. He thinks of his father, a shell of a man, wrapped around his mother. He imagines his trocar filled with the black chewy balls, suspended in diluted formaldehyde.
"No, it doesn't." he replies. "You just go on living."QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021