It was a few minutes after five that she started thinking about how it all went wrong for her.
She sat alone on a stiff couch as the evening light penetrated the makeshift living room. It was a couch meant only for one person, and there she sat, stock still as the images of celebration flashed on the television before her.
The one room flat she lived in was old and in a state of eager decay, the paint flaking off the walls and seemed to writhe like fresh earthworms when viewed from certain angles. Things she used to own were packed in stacks as high as five feet; old rice cookers that have gone beyond repair, newspapers from a time long gone, old shoes and clothes that her only son used to own. She could not let go of these little reminders; it was all she owned from her past life.
A basic trip to the toilet would mean she had to weave between the towering stacks. She would pass by the portrait of her late husband, tucked in a lonely corner between the rusty fridge and the light controls to the kitchen. Her husband was a tall and handsome man when they first met, and in her eyes, still the tall and handsome man on the day that he died. They were by each other through it all, knowing not what was ahead. They had met in 1969, on a sweltering afternoon in June. It was a student rally and they were from brother sister schools. She smiled as she recalled the exact sequence of events. Her memory felt like the only thing she truly owned. The nation was still young at that time, not much older than their love for each other, and much less certain of what was to come, an entire country tried to pull itself together for its one shot at showing the world what it could do.
On the television, the parade had started. Troupe after troupe of dancers and performers streamed onto the grounds, while a sea of red surrounded the entire procession. The Singapore flag was scattered about like insignificant birdfeed, and in the hands of the audience were a thousand more flags being waved frantically by parents, children, white collar workers, troubled youth and the lonely elderly. Within that sea of red, every last negative emotion was readily extinguished and replaced by unquestioning elation. At least, that was how she saw it. Age does turn one cynical.
She shifted in her seat to relieve her stiff back, leaning her left elbow more firmly on the armrest. From the little box that was her television, soldiers started to spill onto the parade ground; they marched with crisp precision and had hardened faces, faces that looked almost identical under stiff headdresses. It reminded her of the day her son enlisted. He had to spend three months on a lonely island off the east coast of Singapore, and in many ways, it was the loneliest three months she had to face. Uncertain of how things would turn out, nothing her husband whispered into her soft ears could replace her fears, could never convince her that her son wasn’t about to be changed for the worst.
After the President had inspected the contingent, the soldiers proceeded to march off. There was a pompous display of military strength, but was there a single reason to believe that the soldiers appreciated this the same way the nation did? She suddenly thought about the early years of her marriage, being relocated out of her simple Kampong, living in a small HDB estate in Toa Payoh. There was nothing to look forward to, yet everything. The future seemed like a wad of PlayDoh; it was entirely up to them to mould it with patience and creativity. Such was the promise of a young nation.
But the initial promises were merely the veneer for the underlying struggles the nation was still attempting to overcome. If the nation looked to be struggling, you could bet the people had it harder. In the span of a few years she worked manual jobs ranging from a worker in soft drink factory to a clerk in a clothes-manufacturing warehouse. Sometimes the shifts stretched on for twelve hours at a time. All this time her husband attempted to start a coffee business, one that failed bitterly by the eighties. She would come home to a man clutching a bottle of Tiger beer in one hand and his face on the other. It hurt her in ways she could never (and perhaps should never) put in words. His failings crippled him with guilt, and it was never resolved until later in his life. Those years which they should have spent in happiness were thus lost in a cloud of forced kisses, turned backs and tense nights.
The sunlight withdrew from the living room, shrouding her in dim twilight. The sky over the parade darkened in equal correspondence, and the melody of home played on screen, the local singer belting out the high notes with utter conviction, the crowd echoing her efforts and the sounds of independence resonating beyond the parade grounds. Everybody in the crowd seemed to have his or her place all of a sudden. The cameras panned to individual faces, mouths wide open, lost in the tune of the song, lost in the idea of a common identity.
Where do I stand in all this? Shoved to this obscure corner of the nation, stuck in the most basic of housing estates I cannot help but feel so, so lonely. Not a single person has visited me since my son left all those months ago. My husband is gone. Not a soul has bothered to ring my doorbell, nobody to ask me how my day went. All these people on the screen cheering in unison, warm families huddling together at home in their little private space, light from the television spilling gently onto their contented faces. What about me? On this day that I should be with the ones I love, I have made the most harrowing realization. There is no one. There is no one to love.
The doorbell rang. The deep chime cut through static silence.
She was startled, so startled she almost slipped out of her skin. Someone has bothered to ring my doorbell.
Trembling, she hauled herself up, and dragged her heavy feet along, inching closer to the door. She reaches the door after considerable effort.
“Who is outside?” She asked.
“It’s me. I’m home.” It was her husband’s voice. She could recognize it from a mile away, and there was no mistaking it. In the deep recesses of her soul, she felt something shrivel up.
“You have finally come home,” she replied. Her voice was trembling uncontrollably, and she found herself hardly able to stand. Still, she did not open the door. It was her husbands’ voice, but she knew her husband might not be on the other side. Didn’t she just see him die a few months ago? Put to the test, could the human heart really conjure up what it yearned most dear?
“Yes I have,” replied the voice. “How have you been doing?”
“Lonely. Everyday has been a struggle. I am old, and with each passing day I cannot help but feel like I need you here more and more. Is your stepping through this door too much to ask?”
There was a brief pause, before the voice spoke again. “I really want to see you. Just open the door, mom.”
Before she could understand the implications of that statement, she had already unlocked the brass handle and opened the wooden door.
A man in his forties stood outside. He was wearing a polo shirt and bermudas, his hair styled in ridiculous pomp. In his hand he held a small cake, and there were seven lighted candles sticking out of it.
It was her son.
She felt a harried mixture of embarrassment and intense warmth spill down her chest. It had been her son’s voice all along. She stepped forward into his embrace, the son managing expectations by balancing the cake carefully.
“I thought you were in America? What about your job?” She inquired after stepping back. They had not met since the funeral.
“Happy birthday mom,” was all he said in reply. There was a soft glow in his eyes and the warmth of the candlelight. She gripped the doorknob so hard her knuckles turned white.
He continued, “don’t ask me why, but I had to be back for this, the thought of you spending your birthday alone was just… I just couldn’t let that happen at any rate. Sorry I am late; it was quite a rush from the airport. It must have felt terrible just sitting in there alone. But hey, I’m here.”
The son stepped into the house, and supported his mother by the shoulders. She put her hand around his waist, and both were stuck in a ridiculous waltz as they pranced towards the couch. She felt the tension in her chest ease off with every step he took, holding her tightly, the image of her husband still faint on the walls of her mind.
Mother and son sat around the cake, both faces glowing in the candlelight. The entire room was dark. It was just the two of them with the dim glow, and by all accounts, that was enough.
Her son realised that if the door opened any earlier, the depth of his mother’s longing may have never been revealed to him. It made him feel at peace with his choice of coming back.
He sang a birthday song for her as the fireworks illuminated the Singapore skyline. The feeling of warmth permeated. “Thank you for this, thank you for coming back here on my birthday” was all she could say at the end of it. The fireworks continued to illuminate the city, glows of red, orange and green punched through the sky.
“This is home, mom. Don’t you ever think I would forget that.”