Crabs

“I have something very important to tell you,” she started.

I turned around because turning around was all I knew.

“I’m quite sure there aren’t anymore crabs on this beach,” she said.

“Crabs?”

“Yes, crabs.”

All around the waves tumbled, one on top of the next, spitting out shiny foam and lacklustre sprinkles. I was curious as to how this related to our walk.

“Tell me more about these crabs.”

“Well,” she started, “when I was younger mother and I would come down here. We would squat by the rocky pools and look for crabs. Sometimes I would get tired and just sit down. I didn’t mind the wet sand. Mother would always scream.”

“Scream at you to stand up?”

“Yes, of course. What else would she scream for?”

The sun hid behind white, innocuous clouds.

I was deep in thought as the waves continued to shuffle. What was it about crabs that bothered her? Was it to do with the way they moved about as her little hands tried to grab for them? Was it, perhaps, an instinctive reaction to all that had changed in her life? That even the simplest of things; crabs, for goodness sake. Even the crabs had ran somewhere, further away.

Later as we were having lunch I watched her pick apart a mussel. They were the freshest in town. The beach flowed endlessly along the solid shoreline. Part of her face was in the sun but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Have I ever told you that I really enjoy these walks?”

I looked up from my platter and smiled in acknowledgement.

“Too bad there aren’t any crabs,” I mentioned.

“No, too bad there aren’t. I think they’ve all moved somewhere else.”

I stared hard at the beach. The breeze played with the trees.

“Something bad must have happened. And they had to leave.”

“Maybe a disease or something,” she added.

“Yes. Maybe.”

We finished our meal in silence.

***

Later we were walking again, her in front of me. The sun was lower in the horizon this time. The breeze still played with the trees. She turned back at me, then looked forward again. She was trying to balance on the ever moving shoreline as the waves came and went. I watched her stumble over this impossible tightrope.

I stepped on something hard, depressing it into the sand.

It was a shell. But no. It was moving.

A crab.

A tiny one too. It looked up at me with eyes that spoke of countless miseries. They were glossy and black, and incredibly small. In its entirety it was no larger than a packet of chilli sauce.

I bent over to pick it up. It looked at me with a mixture of fear and gratefulness. Its eyes went in and out of their sockets. Maybe that’s how they blink. I looked up and saw that she was further ahead now.

The shell was grey, both claws evenly sized. It hardly struggled as I held it between forefinger and thumb. That in the years she spent walking the beach and finding none I should step on a crab on my first visit.

I walked to her, slow steps traipsing between waves. The sun slapped the side of my face as she urged me to hurry up.

I waved at her and her silhouette waved back. In my hand was her childhood. It was struggling now, and started clawing at my palm.

“I found it!” I shouted.

She turned to look, the waves shimmered.

The crab adjusted its pincer and at the precise angle clamped down on my little finger. I let out a sharp cry and released the creature, watching as a precisely timed wave took it away.

Everything happened very quickly. All that was left was the sound of the breeze.

Perhaps I could have jumped, maybe lunged forward to grab the poor thing. But until today I don’t know why I didn’t. I just watched the damn thing fall out of my hands. Disappear into foamy waves that turned water opaque then transparent, opaque then transparent.

Later she would ask me what I found, and I would tell her a well rehearsed line.

“It was nothing.”

She laughed and continued walking.

And naturally part of me would think that something did happen, something very special, something potentially groundbreaking. It was so close, so close to being a moment we could share and relish and ruminate about in wonder.

And then part of me would think that perhaps what I told her was true. Between salted mussels and the bothered palms, nothing special happened on the beach that day.

 

 

Stuck on the Puzzle

Having lugged a lacklustre attitude around for the entire semester, it’s almost laughable that I’m typing this as the plane inches across the sky, leaving bits of blue and white flashing past the window.

As the opportunity for rest comes around I find myself springing to action and typing all this out. This is probably foolish. Strangely, I never had that motivation as the semester drew to a close. I left all my assignments to the last minute and started studying the entire syllabus a couple of days before some of my exams. Sometimes I have the right motivations, but never the right timing.

I compartmentalised all my thoughts this semester and kept them largely to myself, failing to write much at the side. Maybe my fiction class was responsible for this; I had to churn out two 5000-word stories and with that very focused avenue to write and imagine I left it all on those foreign pages, sunk in the commitment to academia. I wrote with intensity for 2 days at a time, and there they were, two stories I could call my own. I’m never a fan of writing slowly and steadily, only quickly and furiously, like ripping off a band-aid along with leg hair and dead skin and all that. I received comments for these stories, some good; others less so. I learned. I edited. And I have to admit, though writing is a joy, editing isn’t. It’s almost painful, like disciplining your child. You want to assume your child is perfect but that probably isn’t the case, so sometimes you hit your child. You do it out of love, but it hurts you to do it nevertheless. This metaphor is not a 1:1 fit but I hope you get the gist. In any case, all that focused writing must have come at a cost. My mind was exhausted and there was less writing I could accomplish at the side. Strange, isn’t it? I got what I most wanted, only to tire of it.

Or maybe the sluggishness came from an over-investment of energy into cross-country trainings, that graduated in intensity and peaked somewhere in the middle of March. As fun as running can be, it teaches you to go with the flow, the flow, the flow. And after months of running you sometimes wonder where all that time went. You’re sometimes tired in classes, sometimes nodding off in meetings. In that way I think writing and running are often in fierce competition for the raw physical energy that my body can generate. It probably doesn’t help that I write better after 1 am, where I’m fighting to keep awake and clawing at the walls of my mind to keep my thoughts together. Maybe that’s because I write the best when I frame the ‘writing experience’ as a struggle. I try to constrain myself in some way to give myself a firm direction to run towards (or away). When I find a comfortable time and space, nothing flows. It’s a highly metaphysical concept. Again, there’s something paradoxical about all this. But in any case, when two or more tiring experiences compete, something has to give.

That being said, I don’t think I ever stopped imagining. I only grew more suspicious of my ability to harness all that imagination. By no means was this a top-down degeneration. I thought it might have been a subtle changing of ideals, a shift in the clouds. That had me feeling panicked for a while. But now that I look back, it was definitely borne out of circumstance, and tiredness, maybe laziness, of things that happened over the semester that made me doubt if good writing was possible even if I wasn’t a good person. That sort of silly insecurity.

But I figured that even if I’ll never be a good person, I want to at least be a decent writer. Reflecting on this over the past week of travelling, I know for sure that the desire to continue on this path is still there (thankfully) and I don’t have any evidence to show except for what the summer will bring. Like I said, the way I frame the experience of writing is that of a struggle. And within any struggle there exists stages of self-doubt and existential questioning. This is how we make the leap between what we think we love and what we actually love. Rarely is a life lived without buts, but being stuck on the puzzle doesn’t mean you give up on it.

Again, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, and I wish after I write these words I will straighten my life with a shot of adrenaline in the backside. I wish that my writing will show some sense of order but as you can see from this post, order is still far down the road. Maybe summer will be fulfilling, maybe it won’t. I don’t know. Most of it is up to me, though maybe some of it is not. In any case, it’s time to labour and learn, and forgive myself for the past semester of neglect.

My Grandfather, the Activist

“Done with the printing?” Came this obnoxious voice down the hall.

No, I wasn’t done.

“Yup, I’m sending it over!” I hollered.

I went into overdrive, searching out the documents, pulling out files, converting word documents into PDFs. The walls of the office were closing in on me. There wasn’t much else to do but work.

I pressed print and stood up. Turned to rush for the printer. My arm hit something warm, and there was the sound of porcelain on plastic. The smell of coffee rose from my desk.

On the bus home is when I consolidate my day, which often turns into a pity session where I analyse the shortcomings in my life. As a child I had great dreams, great ambitions. I looked to my grandfather as a role model. My parents were never home, and he brought me up since young. He opened a photo developing shop at Johor Bahru near the Border. He spent his time taking photographs in the morning and tending to his shop in the afternoon. He was an enthusiast, a family man. But above all he was an activist.

Why activist, you may ask? Well, in my books an activist would be someone who inspires another to fight a similar cause. I sat for many years during hot stuffy afternoons watching him develop photos, place them in albums. Some of his clients would smile and wave at me, telling me how “guai” I was. What I admired about him wasn’t the shop, or the photographs. It might have been at first, but after so long I realise it was always that glint of happiness that he couldn’t quite hold back in the pursuit of his craft. He smiled when a customer came in, took deep excited breaths when framing photographs and packaging them. He inspired me to fight for a life I could be proud of. Well, at first.

Standing in a skirt full of coffee stains and covering the deed with a half crumpled newspaper, I felt that in many ways I had let him down. I had let myself down.

We live in Singapore now. A land of better opportunities, as my parents put it. And besides, Grandpa was getting old.

“How was your day?” I asked him in Chinese. He sat on the couch, flipping through television channels. Baggy white shirt, head full of ivory hair, he looked up at me. The house smelled damp.

“Who are you?” He replied.

“Your granddaughter. I’m your granddaughter.” I took a deep breath. “Anyway, I got you some stuff to eat.”

We sat around the dinner table after some moving about. The television was still turned on. I opened the packets of warm food, and I watched as his eyes lit and he immediately reached out with his bare hands.

“No, I’ll get you fork and spoon!” I strode to the kitchen with the set of utensils for him and a pair of chopsticks for myself.

He was already stuffing food into his mouth. I placed the utensils in his hands and he grudgingly obliged.

“You know during the war we didn’t even have bowls.” He reminisced.

“This isn’t the war, grandpa. This is 2016.”

“Who said anything about war?”

I continued eating as my grandfather went on about wartime rations for the sixtieth time this month. He took large swallows, and spat bones out with huge chunks of food. Soon I would have to remove these bones for him.

“How was your day?” I ventured.

“Who are you? Everyday I am here I feel more trapped.”

“How was your day?”

“It is a life of suffering.” It’s funny how phrases sound normal in Chinese but when translated sound pretentiously philosophical.

As I was washing the dishes I noticed again the coffee stains on my skirt. I noticed that it had faded away and was in gradually lighter shades of brown as time went by. I noticed that this was my life. I had to take care of the same man who cradled me when I was a senseless child. It only made sense that I did. I had to work a dead end job every day to make sure we made ends meet, serving coffee and printing meaningless documents. It only made sense that I did. And most of all, it only made sense that I came home to a man who didn’t recognise me, whose look of betrayal stung me every time. It was almost as if he was truly disappointed in what had become of me. That he, a young man struggling in the seventies could have found a job that he truly loved whilst me, a prosperous millennial, could only settle for second best.

And when you settle for second best that’s exactly what you get.

Rooftops

My father told me when I was younger that if you went on a rooftop in the dead of night and made a wish, that in the morning the wish would come true. Now that I think about it, I wasn’t so sure why he said that. Feeding a naive child such a notion must not have been the wisest thing to do.

Sure enough, on the day grandpa passed away I attempted just that. I snuck out of my room in the dead of night and climbed the railing of my house’s balcony. Reaching out for the edge of the roof, my foot slipped on the railing and I fell 2 stories. I broke both my legs that night, and passed out immediately. Right before I fainted, however, I heard grandpa calling my name from above. I swore I did. It was so clear, the way his voice cut through the air as I passed out. I was so sure I could have saved him had I just made it onto the roof and made a wish.

My father was visibly shaken after the incident, and implored my mother not to scold me. “I fed him tales before he slept, I will take responsibility for what happened,” he said. My mother had just lost her own father, and could not endure the possibility of losing her son as well. She did not talk to any of us until after Grandpa was cremated. I sat in the hospital and thought of what would have happened had I successfully climbed up the roof. Grandpa would be back, I was sure of that, and I would not be in the state I was in. It took me a few years before I snapped out of it and stopped blaming myself for my family’s grief. I must have imagined the voice of my grandfather that night.

Many years later, my own father died. After I put my own kids to bed, I found myself climbing to a rooftop again. Of course, I had no hopes of reviving my father, but just knew that this was something I had to do. I made sure not to slip this time, though. Thankfully, modern housing made the task of climbing to the roof safer. There was a thin ladder that led up to the top, and unlike the slanted apex roof of my old home, this was a flat roof.

When I was finally at the top I sat down on the cleanest patch of ground I could find, and just took some time to breathe. It was the peculiar time that one knew not whether to call morning or night. I realised then that I hadn’t had time for myself the past week with relatives coming to offer their condolences, and my children needing attention of their own as well. I sat there, the moon casting its faint glow all over me, shrouding me in pallor. I thought of why, in our quietest moments, we tend to think the most coherent thoughts. It was as if my mind became suddenly active, an arrow flying straight to the bullseye. I quickly conjured up a small list of things I wish I could have told my father.

I was startled by a rustling below, and crawled over to the edge, carefully. It was my neighbours son, coming home late into the night. I spied on him from above, as he made his way to the front door. It was probably a raunchy night of drinks, I thought.

And then came my wildest realisation. It was my father all this time. He had been on the rooftop all those years ago, the same way I was on the rooftop now. That was the only way I was noticed and brought to the hospital in the dead of night. That was the only way I could have heard my name being called out from above as I passed out. It wasn’t grandpa after all. And if not for him I would have been left unconscious until the morning. Nobody would have noticed me there, except that he did. And so we sat there, on different rooftops, 20 years apart. But we were sharing something special, I was sure of that. I could very much feel him there, beside me. Just silently hoping.

Later that night, I opened the door to my son’s bedroom, and watched him as he slept. There he was, my son. Then I finally understood why my father told me those bedtime stories. Because he wanted me to imagine a world where people didn’t die and we had no regrets about the things we didn’t say. I knew then, what I had to do.

I closed the door, and went off to bed. I thought of just the story to tell him, a story about rooftops. But it would have to wait for tomorrow night.

Running has to be a Labour of Love

I don’t know why, but writing about running makes more sense when I’m injured and can’t run. But that’s what it has come down to, at least for the coming week. I did a few too many speed workouts and the area around my hip flexor feels slightly off. I can’t really walk a few steps without feeling a slight pain inch up my upper thigh. This was probably bound to happen given that I was training five times a week at one juncture.

As I was hobbling along today I realised just how tough running actually is. Not that I thought a lot about it as I was training. There’s no point questioning so much. When people ask me why I like to run I always have my answers on a template and it looks something like this:

I like to run because I can explore the area. I like to run because it feels good to feel fast. I like to run because the improvement I make is often very tangible, and I like challenging myself in that way. I like to run because there’s nothing like feeling the wind play with your hair. 

All these reasons are good reasons, but they often fall flat the moment I’m injured. When I had my stress fracture two years ago I hardly talked about running, mainly because I was ashamed that I couldn’t run, but also because all the above reasons felt more and more like a distant memory to me. And besides, different things began to take over my life when I was injured that in one way or another filled the void left by running. I found out that I could write when I was sad, and there were other more dubious means to get high without running.

In those moments without running it was as if I never ran and that conjuring these thoughts of running would only serve as an unnecessary torture. Like the reminder of a past love.

And maybe that was it, we don’t want to be reminded of past glory in all its various forms, because more than just showing that we’re no longer as good as we used to be, it also shows us the transient, passing nature of greatness itself, and that it can be a  very scary thing to possess in the first place.

I would say that right now I’m faster than I’ve ever been before, but with all that ability comes the nagging fear that this can be all taken away from me, as it has for this week. In a sense I’m lucky to have had past experience with injury to be wise enough to not push the limits. And so I rest for now. But as hopeful as I am for progress, I am often cynical and remind myself that this might just be it; the height of running glory might be here and now. I can do everything to prevent myself from injury and stagnation and it might still go awry. I might look back not long from now lugging a satchel of memories of my glorious past. I’m all too familiar with that sinking feeling.

Injuries bring forth all these insecurities. I am the adopted child afraid of being sent back to the orphanage should I misbehave. I try very hard to prevent all these problems from happening, and as I do I start to slowly discover why it is that I truly like to run.

A friend once told me that he doesn’t run because running was too easy, and anyone could be fast. You just run all day, and that’s it. He would rather play a ball sport that depended on something more interesting like team dynamics and agility.

My coach would agree with my friend on the first part of his claim: that running was easy. My coach told me on our first training that every athlete comes to him with passion, but the mark of a true runner is someone who does everything else right outside of their passion. “Running is the easiest thing to do, anyone can run. It’s your (and he would pause here for dramatic effect) lifestyle that I’m more interested in.” And by lifestyle he meant everything from the hours of sleep to the temperature of the water you drink (no cold drinks is the order I’d been given). And so from there you see what it really means to be a runner: not about being fast or feeling fast, but about the ability to protect and nurture that passion. Running is like the hole in the donut. It’s everything else around it that really matters, but yet it is the hole that defines the donut.

I’m still learning that lesson. There are days when I make mistakes, and let my guard down. I sleep a little late and drink with my friends on occasion. I sometimes fail to plan my meals properly. Little things like that tend to go wrong, but I’m learning. I’m also learning to love the entire process of nurturing. You can’t love your performance whilst dread rehearsals and say that theatre is your life. And maybe it’s the same for running, and everything else. I may be wrong, but I think true passion probably doesn’t work around a bunch of concessions. You either love everything about the process, or end up convincing yourself to.

So my friend was right, it was easy to run. Anyone can run. But to be a runner? It takes a whole lot of dedication, a whole different way of life. True passion isn’t just about love, but loving the labour of love.

And as for the satchel of memories that I’ll carry into the future? I think future me would be proud if I did everything with love right now. I have my shot at some degree of greatness. And if I do everything I can to protect it, I can look back and have no regrets.

So why do I like to run?

I like to run because I loved everything else that came with it as well, and that has slowly become the way I live. 

You know what, I’ll just stick to the first answer if anybody asks.

Being Busy is Ok if You’re Ok with Being Busy

I never thought I’d be one to say that I’ve been busy lately so haven’t been updating my site. But it has been as such. But no, I won’t say I’ve been busy but more like, I’ve had less energy. I’d attribute this loss of energy to the tremendous load of training I’ve been administered, but also from the energy that has been siphoned from me doing a myriad of meaningless things. Missing buses, running errands, scrolling from start to finish on my newsfeed. I’ve been preoccupying myself with the wrong things in all likeliness.

But if I have to be honest that this week has been the busiest of all. I’ve had to cover a lot of news in school, took over the chief role because the actual chief of newsletterland went overseas this week and passed most of the responsibilities to me. So it’s ironic that I’m writing this. I always write at the most inconvenient of times, like now when I’m supposed to plan out my 2500-word psychology essay.

Busy-ness isn’t just measured by work, but by the rate of change of effort from one week to the next. We can go for weeks at a time doing a fair amount of work and not feel busy, or exhaustingly so. But if you had an easy week before and suddenly had a fair amount of work slapped upon you then suddenly it feels tiring. That’s this week for me; things suddenly increased in intensity; two assignments chasing me and a presentation today that went horribly.

I’m the kind to set my own standards and chase them. No matter what the outcome, if I’m not satisfied then I’m not. Nothing can convince me of my worth but myself. And that’s the way it goes with most of the things I care about. I stumbled on the explanations, made a wrong interpretation of the experimental results and was rightfully corrected. It was to be a bad stain on the week, and no matter how small a stain it will still be called a stain. But what can I do but move on?

And move on I did, because following the blotched presentation there was some big news that hit my school. There was a change in leadership in the upper echelons, and my news organisation had to cover it and so I was newsletterland represent, and followed the media into a press conference area.

I clutched my laptop, got ushered into a room with my phone as a voice recorder and my heart fell in between my slippers when every reporter in the room was dressed in semi formal attire and I was dressed to greet Santa Claus in the middle of the night in my living room. And It wasn’t even christmas. And I found myself greeting the school’s Governing Board instead. Embarrassed but keeping up a strong front (power-play is all about confidence rather than actual ability, they say) I shook some hands, sat down, recorded the entire proceeding, took some notes, shook some hands again, and left. There were a bunch of straight up reporters in there, proper voice recorders that looked like Nokia phones, a pile of notes, serious voices asking a bunch of overlapping questions and frenzied scribbling. And there was me who was just impressed that I got a complimentary bottle of water for just being in the room. After I left, it was time to start on the article. I had a few hours and time was ticking.

I forgot to say that busy-ness isn’t just about doing more, but about learning more as well. If I gave you a bunch of things to do that you were already familiar with, you would be irritated but you wouldn’t be engaged. Which means to say, you’d do these things without thinking twice about them, a bit like what menial labour is all about. But give someone a list of unfamiliar tasks and a whole different realm of busy is unlocked. It’s not your compartmentalisable busyness where you can do one thing at a time because you know A should go before B and following that is C. This is a very frenzied, disorganised busyness, where the mind constantly works to make sense of the situation, of the different parts that go either here or there, the best way, the most efficient way, and most of all deal with the different combination of things that do and do not work and deal with it via trial and error and at the end of the day be ok with it. Many people do survive doing unfamiliar things, but whether they’re ok with is is a different story.

As the day draws to a close it feels very much like I’m ok with it. Sure, it was a hell of a day. I could have spent three hours on everything if I did everything to the best and most efficient of my abilities, but I spent 9 hours instead. But I’m okay with it. I’m ok with learning for now and letting new tasks dismantle my resolve and have me assemble myself again and again. I think that’s what choosing your struggles is about, to be unfamiliar with something but still say ok, I’ve got this.

Maybe I’m preparing myself for the future when I say such things. The way things usually play out, the chances of you winning every battle that comes your way is slim. You have to concede that you’re just not into some things in life. When I was 14 I went for flute lessons but I learned that I preferred running and so went with that. The busyness of flute-playing wasn’t one I could accept, the busyness of running in circles was and so I still continue to do the latter. Choice isn’t about the initial tick of the box but the hundreds and thousands of days that follow that you continue to tick that same box.

And this all follows nicely to the box that I ticked today after all the madness subsided. I declared my major today, and am strangely happy to say that I’ll be majoring in Arts and Humanities with the emphasis on creative writing. Maybe this was a box I already ticked back in army when I first wrote that short story. Maybe this was a box that I ticked again and again when I wrote article after article and updated this blog. But it feels real now, perhaps more real than ever, that this is a box that I will have to continue ticking, a busyness that I have to be ok with, over and over.

And so it is no wonder this choice didn’t feel like a groundbreaking one, not at all. This choice was already made, and in many ways I feel like I’m not in control here. As a friend said, it’s the inevitability of dreams. It’s just the way things will turn out, and the reason why I feel like there’s something to look forward to in the future. Busy it will be, but I’m ok with that.

 

 

A First date at Botanic Gardens

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.

“For lunch?”

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.”

“Right.”

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.