The sun beam hit the leaves that filtered shadows to the concrete path. Our feet waddled amongst the blurry shapes of leaves. I walked slowly with her and just talked. I talked about deep fears, my aversion to ice cream and even talked about the northern lights and how I really would like to witness it one day, just once in my life. I talked about wild dogs even, how I was sometimes really scared of them. I don’t remember ever having so much to talk about, even when I was alone and talking to myself.
The gardens didn’t seem like a good place for a first date, but the afternoon unraveled as such. I was sick of tradition; the nice clothes and fancy dinner so when I asked her three days ago it was simple. “Would you want to have lunch with me?”
“Just you and me?”
Oh fuck, what now. “Yes, just us. Would Tanglin be okay? The mall is small but I know this place that serves great french pastry” I had no idea what I was talking about.
And so the day began with French pastry for lunch. No kidding. There was really a place there that served just that. It was the kind of meal that would always leave you unsatisfied due to the puffiness of the bread and the small portions of carefully sautéed meat.
And then we took a walk around the Gardens.
“You need insect repellent?” I asked.
“I don’t think there are many mosquitoes in the afternoon.”
If awkwardness were a ball shaped object then I was probably the sun.
And so we sauntered along and for some strange reason I began talking. It’s hard to say why we talk. Sometimes it’s to fill the space, like when someone you don’t really know that well walks on by and you suddenly feel that, hey, I have to say something to appear like a decent human being. And then you do. At other times you really want to tell someone something about you. And sometimes, you talk just to prove to yourself (because as logical beings some of us need that proof) that you exist. Existence is rare, but to have someone who really wants to listen is arguably rarer, and so every chance you get to do that you should grab that chance and do that.
I was doing that, and it helped that she was listening. It wasn’t some one-sided exchange either. She picked up on the rhythm of my words, interjecting just when I had run out of things to say. It wasn’t like back at the french pastry store. Back there, we were tongue tied and trying too hard to impress. Now it was just us, the scenery, some halfhearted breeze and a partly cloudy 3pm. We had a world of things to talk about. The world with its chirpy birds, lush green and remarkable silence surrounded us and allowed us these things to talk about.
She told me about her grandparents. Most people don’t talk about their grandparents, I remarked. Well, but I am, she replied. Right, go along. And go along she did.
Her grandfather had stories, that of which he would tell her before she went to bed. Stories of past triumphs, hardships. Stories of death. Death? I asked. Yes, death. Do you know what’s Memento Mori? Yes, I did. Ok so see, she replied, that when one got so old death was something that would always play around at the peripheries, like rats lurking around a dumpster. There was something unapologetic about the way my grandfather talked about death, talked about it so often. But it was never sad, don’t get me wrong. Death was one half about remembering to him. That was the first stage. But the other half was also about treasuring the now. I think he always told me these stories about the people in his life that were dead so I would eventually learn that lesson for myself.
What stories, I asked.
My uncle, she said, died while serving the nation. He was killed when a tank ran into the van he was sitting in. Him and the driver were crushed instantly. He also told me about his barber he visited for 25 years, being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer one day, and claiming him in three months. My grandfather let his hair grow out those three months, only cutting it again after paying his final respects at the funeral.
Weren’t these stories depressing in one way or another? I asked again. I was afraid I was prying.
It wasn’t so bad. I saw death from a distance, and always, always through his stories. I think that was his way of protecting me, you know. I was quite sensitive as a child because of this. My friends were always asking questions about death and the dark beyond but I seemed to know it all. It was my grandfather, ensuring that I didn’t have to learn about death the hard way.
At that moment there was a loud crash in the distance. A few birds flew off into the air from the nearby trees. There was a vehement sigh, like the sound of a thousand bags of autumn leaves being released into the ground all at once.
“What was that?” someone asked. It could have been either of us, or both. It didn’t matter.
There were screams in the distance.
We should go check it out, I suggested.
We walked slowly in the direction of the sound. I hope everyone’s okay, she said. There was silence again, the birds settled on different branches, whilst the wind continued to play with the leaves, shadows continued to play at our feet.
She told me about the day her grandfather died.
All the time he spent with me when I was younger could not prepare me for the day he died, she started. All there was to say was perhaps that guilt took over, and it held onto me quick and fast. Because for all the stories he told, and for all the times he told me to remember that death always awaited, I never thought it could ever be him. I believed that the man who knows death would be above it. But when that wasn’t the case, I realised that all along, I never listened to him. I never treasured the time with him while I could have. I listened and I nodded, but I was never there, with him.
Maybe that was all he wanted from you, I offered. To just, you know, be there.
Maybe. But what a thing to assume, don’t you think? That being there is enough. I mean, what would my presence be worth?
It’s worth a lot, I interjected.
It’s not enough, she replied. The kind of reply a teacher gives a class, telling them that no, there is only one answer to the comprehension question, anything else gets a zero. There were screams in the distance.
Maybe the conversation could have gone on after that. We could have talked about how presence is one thing, that trying is another. Then would trying to be more present be enough? Would it, in the grand scheme of things, be ok to say, I tried and so am absolved of all blame, no matter what? Or could she have tried, but still achieve nothing? After all, I found out eventually, that her grandfather had dementia. He probably couldn’t sense that she did anything more. But it’s not about that, I could imagine her reply. It’s selfish to think of the most practical way about things. Because maybe being human isn’t about that. Then what would it be about? I still don’t have the answers to that. Because that’s all we really said on our first date. It wasn’t much. Or at least, not enough.
For all the wisdom that her grandfather had passed to her, she stopped short of revealing the secrets of dealing with death.
We marched past some thick vegetation and bright light descended as we reached a clearing, where the symphony lake appeared in front of us. To the left, there was a large crowd of people, pushing, pulling, struggling. Branches, leaves, a little girl crying. There was a scream for help, a desperate one. The kind that of scream that leaves no doubt the magnitude of what had just happened.
I was not personally affected by this incident. The walk through the botanic gardens, along with the date, is almost entirely fictional.