Fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)

Two Among Many

by Philip Holden

Then Raffles said, 'O Sultan, hear what is enacted by English law. The murderer according to it shall be hung; and if not alive, the corpse is hung, notwithstanding. Such is the custom of the white people.' Then at the same time he ordered the corpse to be brought and put in a buffalo cart, which was thereupon sent round the town of Singapore to the beat of the gong, informing all the European and native gentlemen to look at this man who had drawn blood from his Raja or Governor; and that the law was that he should not live, but in death even he should be hung. When they had sufficiently published thus, then they carried the corpse to Tanjong Maling, at the point of Telok Ayer, where they erected a mast on which they hung it, in an iron basket, and there it remained for ten or fifteen days, till the bones only remained. After this the Sultan asked the body from Mr. Raffles, which was granted: Not till then was it washed and buried.
                                                            Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah

She will not meet him for two years. But when she steps forward, when the alarm sounds under the lintel of the metal detector, when the brisk woman in her crisp blue uniform comes forward with hands extended to pat her down, it's decided. The date remains to be fixed, but it is certain that they will meet.

She has waited in Singapore Changi airport for hours, after the crowded flight from Phnom Penh, bumping through turbulence over the Gulf of Thailand. Her connecting flight delayed, she’s walked the pastel corridors with their low lighting, taking in the purple orchids, the koi pond bridged by a narrow, parsimonious arch. It's cool here. Quiet. The heat outside must be just like the heat of the cities she's visited before—Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok—but she's insulated behind glass, like the quick fish in the tank in the waiting lounge. Outside the planes bake on the concrete, gleaming white, wings sharp as knives.

She's passed through the airport once before to change planes, just as she is doing now. Today's different, though: she's much less certain of herself. More time to think things over. As much as she would like to forget, she cannot quite avoid her purpose here. She's calm, but it's a willed calm, carefully maintained, like the pruned beauty of the palms in the light well. This submerged nervousness leads her to seek familiarity, and she searches for comfort food. She finds a stall selling Starbucks, marooned like an island in a vast expanse of purple carpet. She orders a latte; they take American dollars, but return change in an unfamiliar currency. When she sits down, she sorts the coins idly with her spare hand. Different colours, different sizes, but all mirroring each other: on one side a crest, on the other, flowers.

His housing estate has corridors too, lined by planter boxes of purple bougainvillea and trim palms, maintained by an invisible army of workers who vanish each morning. It's in the north of the island, connected to its fellows, to the city centre, and to the airport by the arteries of the MRT and highways. He likes the fresh paint, the well-scrubbed tiles of the estate, the bus that always comes on schedule, the solid pillars of the Light Rapid Transit system. Everything is cared for. When the LRT passes blocks of flats its windows mist over automatically, shielding balconies lined with washing and potted plants from the prying eyes of passengers. Yet when he goes to the kopitiam each morning he's looking for a sanctuary from this overwhelming newness. Not that the coffee shop's so old, but in the twenty years or so since it was built it has already acquired reassuring layers of grime. In one of the angles where a pillar meets ceiling, a pair of swiftlets have made a nest, a small pocket of feathers and twigs glued to the walls. Today he pauses momentarily to watch one of the birds return with food, noticing the high-pitched chirping of the young birds in the nest, the way the yellow rims of their unformed beaks open and close. He's glad that no one's thought to clear the nest away. Then he sits down gratefully at a formica table worn white by the scraping of plates, finds that his hands tremble when he unfolds the newspaper. He's gestured for coffee; they know him here, and the kopi o arrives promptly.

He has counted out the change for the coffee vendor carefully in preparation, but he still fumbles when he picks it up. His palms are sweaty, and the silver and gold coins cling together, eluding his fingers. More haste, less speed. Then he pulls them free. Next the roti prata arrives, a pillow of folded, crisped dough, and he repeats the performance with greater success.

He arranges everything on the table precisely, like a surgeon preparing for an operation. To his left the newspaper, unfolded to the letters page, weighed down in one corner with a bottle of chilli sauce so that the overhead fans will not turn the pages prematurely. Nearer to him the kopi in a heavy china cup printed with English flowers, a fading colonial memory caught beneath the glaze, mismatched with an orange plastic saucer. He stirs it so that the sugar will dissolve, takes an experimental sip. The handle is tiny and difficult to grip; he pinches it tightly between two swollen fingers. Finally, he reaches to his right. He eats the prata with spoon and fork, pulling the layers apart along hidden seams, dipping a small piece into the curry sauce, feeling its soapy texture on the tongue followed, after a moment, by an explosion of taste.

At Starbucks, she drinks her coffee, reassured how it tastes the same as in any other airport. It will also taste the same in Sydney, when she arrives late in the evening or now—in all probability—early the next day. The accompanying croissant is dry in her mouth; she chews with deliberate slowness. Later, in the interview room, she will tell them everything about her that they want to know. Who she met in Australia before she left. Who paid for her trip to Cambodia. Where she went. Who she met there. Eventually her whole life, from the beginning. She was born in a refugee camp on the Thai border; her mother had fled from Laos, but she's not Laotian: she's ethnic Chinese. Teochew. She never knew her father. They—her mother, herself, a younger brother—migrated to Australia when she was four. She cannot remember much about her childhood. But later life was hard: she couldn’t afford to go to university. She did sales and marketing, but her brother got into debt. Into trouble. He needed money. And so ....

Now she returns the tall glass with its plastic stirrer, the empty plate speckled with crumbs, to the barista. Not the woman who first served her, but a young man with a mullet and a tattoo that curves down from the neck until it's hidden by the collar of his shirt. He nods to her, but doesn't speak. He can't place me, she thinks; he doesn't know what language to use. And I won't help him. Here I am one among many. In Australia, every now and then, a stranger can burst open my sense of belonging: the man in the shop who tells me I speak English very well; the immaculately dressed old lady who asks me if I am an "Oriental," and, when I nod, speechless, continues "Oh well, dear, never mind." In the few days I spent in Vietnam , the taxi drivers knew from the way I dress that I was from somewhere else; once or twice they thought I might be vietkieu, overseas Vietnamese, and gave an experimental greeting, only for me to answer them conclusively in my mangled phrasebook pronunciation, my broken tones. It is just here, at this airport, that I fit in, in transit between lives.

When she shoulders her pack she feels the tug of the packages taped to her lower and upper back.

He is also one among many. She's flotsam, moved across continents by the currents of the world. He's like a limpet. He has stayed here, stubbornly, while the world has changed around him. First the British, under whom he started working. Mr Grouse, the Superintendent, taught him well. In his teens, in his twenties, everything that was solid began to melt: colonial retreat, insurgencies, elections, merger with Malaysia, and then, in 1965, unlooked-for independence. He remembers the press conference on a flickering television screen, the prime minister who paused to wipe away tears at the failure of a life's work. And then, when he was still married to his first wife, a reverse process: the sudden solidity of the nation-state, the deep freeze of post-independence politics. Through all this he's kept his job, kept up his standards. Some things never change. He still uses, in his work, the 1913 tables that the British devised but long since abandoned. He's tried unsuccessfully to pass on his skills, trained two successors who each left the service when the time came to shoulder responsibility. Even if he's supposed to be retired now, the government still calls on him when he's needed.

He sips his coffee.

They are both Catholics. She went to church faithfully, every Sunday, for as far back as she could remember. At ten she took her first communion. Even when she returned home from uni, after her brother had said he wouldn't go any more, she would accompany her mother to Church, performing the masquerade of a double life. But she, like her brother, has long since ceased to believe. Forget other worlds: the business of living in this one is more than enough. She remembers. Money to help her brother? She could go to Cambodia, pick up a package through to Sydney. Through Singapore? She laughed in incredulity. You don't understand, the man had told her: they don't mind if you take stuff through, in transit. They just don't want it coming into their country.  Here's the name, the phone number, when you're in Phnom Penh.

In Cambodia, even on Tonle Sap they have churches, boats with a high pitched roof and a wooden cross that float across the lake. In two years time, before the meeting in the prison, they will ask if she would like to see a priest; she'll acquiesce, and they'll talk, separated by glass. Even in prison she'll play this masquerade again: on the surface she'll be numbly calm; on the inside something will move restlessly within her, like a bird beating itself against glass. She will allow the priest to think he has comforted her.

He goes to mass faithfully, every Sunday. He likes the grandeur, the ceremony, the statue of the Virgin Mary garlanded with flowers as he climbs the steps in the morning heat up to the church that has no walls, the nave supported by pillars only. His first wife said to him, haven't you read the Ten Commandments? How can you carry on doing the job you do? But for him it has never been like that. Your life is a series of compartments, like the segments of the oranges his Chinese neighbours give him at New Year. When government service calls him, he will leave his flat in the cool of the night, go to the prison, spend hours checking that everything is in working order. After it's all over, he'll return in the midday heat, sink into the soft leather of the couch beneath the ceiling fan, pour himself a single glass of brandy.

When she walks towards her waiting flight the corridor narrows. She tries not to think too deeply, to drink in sensations of the present: the purple carpet, the potted palms, the advertisements for credit cards and frequent flier miles. On either side, the gates in orderly rows, dimly lit, like empty glass tanks. Or cells, she thinks. As she reaches the brushed silver walkway it sighs suddenly into life. And as she's propelled forward, she becomes conscious of the soft music. Lennon's "Imagine," without the vocals. She smiles: a protest song become muzak, oiling the smooth flow of money through the airport. For a moment she remembers again: the packages on her body, the white crystals reduced to powder in the cheap hotel room, the door locked, the fan switched off in the gathering heat. Keep walking. Don't think. By the gate ahead the early crowd is gathering. When she steps off the walkway she feels calmer again, as if she's entered a ritual, like one of the masses of her adolescence. Her body moves forward—it does not disrupt the ceremony—yet she is propelled towards her destination by habit only. She notices herself join the line at the gate.

When he stands up he's wearied by the sudden weight of his body. It's hotter now, and he can taste acid in his mouth; his right knee creaks in protest on the first few flexes. Strange, he muses, how he can control all bodies other than his own, weigh each one, subtract the weight of the head, calculate the exact length of rope for the clean, momentary fall into darkness. What he does is not the most difficult thing to do. Think of the doctor who is always waiting. If the organs need to be harvested, Doctor Yeh will wait two minutes, then go up a free-standing ladder next to the corpse that is still not yet quite a corpse. He'll lean forwards, hold body still, put stethoscope against the heart, and listen: only then will the doctor give signal to lower the body down. Compared to this, what he does is nothing. There's a mirror on one of the pillars in the coffee shop, and as he passes he catches sight of his reflection. Still a full head of hair; a fuller belly. He doesn't look his age. When he comes out from the shade of the awning the space between the buildings seems less like a corridor than a conduit, a storm drain filled up to the brim with a surge of light.

Before they meet, there'll be a process. First the court case, then the failed appeal, then letters to the press, fruitless representations from politicians and celebrities for clemency. A war of images: her old passport photo; her mother in tears; lawyers at the prison gates; the Prime Minister with his awkward smile. A war of terminology, also: barbarism, colonialism, sovereignty, rights. Her face slowly becoming invisible, written over with layer upon layer of words.

He keeps his mind active. His grandson taught him how to use the Internet. He likes those sites where you can find an address on a map, and then zoom out, from a block of flats to the town, and then to the whole island of Singapore caught in an indentation in the tip of Asia, snagged like a corpuscle on the wall of a vein. Reclamation has long ago softened the island's shape. It's rounder, fatter: Tanjong Maling has been swallowed up by the wharves and gantries of a container port. But he's still struck by an uncanny symmetry here: how the impossibly large resembles the impossibly small. The lines of silt that trail out into the Straits of Malacca are viscous, like venous fluids under a microscope.

In public life, too, he's haunted by unacknowledged symmetry. This is something that he senses but can't articulate, why he celebrates the new but seeks out the old. He does not want to think further, and yet in this gleaming, brilliant city he always feels unclean, something that persists beyond the daily rhythms of showers, clean tissues, or the careful soaping of hands. The memory of something else swells beneath the skin of the present, something before, when he was younger, when a nation was coming into being. There were words he and his friends heard often and were not ashamed to speak: equality, rights, socialism, democracy, justice. If he searches hard, he can still detect traces of them in the present, but they are almost erased, written over by the crisp new language of social order, economic imperatives, retribution, discipline, punishment. He’s not sure how to picture this change. You think the city is perfect; visitors love its shining schools, hospitals, factories and shopping malls. Then you look more closely, and you see scar tissue, like the keloids that grow on your arm after an immunization jab. Imagine a scarified body, its skin like armour, memories and desires sealed up within it, their retrieval an impossible effort. Yet these perfect scars are also not without their beauty: they are hard, and can resist the storms of the world.

In this particular storm, they will both be in places of calm. She behind reinforced glass, thick concrete walls. Even her mother will not be allowed to touch her hand. He, and so many others, behind other walls: routine, the soft intimacies of family or of friends, the forgetful business of living.

At the end of the island, next to the airport, there is a prison. It is clean, modern, well planned; its corridors meet at perfect angles. Like the airport. Like the estate.

They will meet there, in two years. Two among many.

Editors' note: Read a review of The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English, co-authored by Rajeev Patke & Philip Holden here.

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