I open my eyes. For a moment, I do not know what woke me. The muslin curtains at the windows are fluttering above my head, and I peer up blankly beneath them at the sky; it is still night, though a grey light is beginning to creep through the darkness, gnawing at the stars. The draught that dances the curtains is soaked in dew. Then the bed judders. Turning on my side, I see Ted sitting up, feeling the bedside table for his glasses.
I catch his arm and murmur: “Where are you going?” Ted turns, and there is a wild light trembling in his eyes.
“Valerie,” he mumbles, struggling to extricate his legs from the tangle of blanket, “Valerie is late for school.”
His words slap me like an icy splash of water. My grip tightens.
“It’s just a dream,” I say, fully awake now. “Ted.”
He does not seem to have heard me, ripping a loose clump of string off the blanket as he kicks his legs free.
“Ted,” I say louder, “it’s just a dream.” My fingernails are digging into his skin.
At last he stops scrabbling at the blanket and turns to me. The storm in his eyes has subsided, leaving only puddles of reflected light.
”It’s just a dream, huh,” he whispers, “just a dream.”
Propping myself up, I reach out and stroke his head. Soft and sparse, the grey wisps of hair left feel like the feathers of a newborn bird beneath my palm. In the dimness that leave both of us looking like the newly dead, I trace with my eyes the network of ravines that age has etched on his face, down the basin of his cheek to the wattle of skin that hangs around his neck.
“Go back to sleep,” I say. And he does, closing his eyes and sinking back into bed, draping the blanket back over his shoulders like an obedient child. Soon, the shallow rasp of his breathing fills my ears. But I stay awake, watching as the sky washes the stars off its skin in a river of growing light.
I am putting bread into the toaster when Ted shuffles into the kitchen. Sitting down at the table, he unfolds the newspapers that I have brought in from the door. Then he touches his shirt pocket and frowns. Getting up from the table, he shuffles back to the bedroom, and returns with a puzzled expression on his face.
“Have you seen my glasses?” he asks.
“You don’t need glasses,” I remind him, setting some coffee to brew. “You’ve had cataract surgery that corrected your vision.”
He stares at me for a moment, and then laughs. “Well,” he says, “old habits die hard.” Flattening the middle crease of the newspaper with his hands, he bends over the front page.
The bread pops out from the toaster. Removing it, I slather kaya upon it. The water in the pot on the stove is beginning to bubble, so I turn off the gas and lower four eggs, one after the other, into the water, and replace the lid.
Silence, interspersed by the gurgling of the coffee pot, the chatter of birds and the distant rumble of a vehicle. Outside the sky is a brilliant blue, with daubs of white for clouds.
It occurs to me that I have not heard the rustle of the newspapers in a long while. I glance over at Ted. His head is still bent over the front page, in the manner of a statue staring at a stone tablet.
“How’s the news today?” I say.
Ted blinks, and looks up at me.
“Bad,” he says after a moment, “bad. Wars and terrorist attacks and global warming, as usual. For a colony of cells suspended in infinity, we are mightily adept at causing suffering to ourselves.”
I give him a long look.
“Yea,” I say at last, “yea,” but the word is stuck like a fish bone in my throat and comes out sounding all muffled. Resting my hands on the counter, I turn towards the window.
“Are you all right?” Anxiety in his voice.
“Yea,” I repeat, “it’s just that …” I break off. “Look,” I say instead, “isn’t the sky such a gorgeous blue today?”
Across the kitchen, Ted squints at the sky beyond the window grilles.
“It is,” he agrees, “It is beautiful.” In silence he gazes at the sky for a while. Then he looks back down at the newspapers. Touching his shirt pocket he frowns, and then looks up at me again.
“Have you seen my glasses?”
“No,” I say, still staring out of the window, “you don’t need glasses to look at the sky. Let’s take a walk by the bay later after your appointment. We haven’t gone there in a while.”
“Good afternoon, Prof Lim,” says the doctor. “How are you today?”
Rising from his seat as we enter, the doctor strides forward and clasps Ted’s hand. With one hand on Ted’s back and the other on his arm, the doctor guides Ted to his seat and then pulls up another for me.
“Good,” says Ted, “it’s good to be back.” As he speaks his eyes wander around the room, lingering at intervals—upon the vinyl examining table, the little sink, the stacks of files on a metal trolley pushed against a wall, the glow of the computer screen on the doctor’s desk.
“Well, you know the drill, Prof,” says the doctor, clipping some papers onto a clipboard. “I’m just going to start off by doing a simple mental test on you, and we’ll see where that gets us. Are you ready?”
Ted’s eyes are still wandering around the room. Gently, the doctor reaches out and taps Ted on the arm. Like a pair of startled birds, Ted’s eyes flit back to him. “I’m going to do a simple mental test on you now, Prof,” repeats the doctor patiently. “Are you ready?”
Ted gives a terse nod. Holding up the clipboard, the doctor begins firing questions off a list.
“What is the year?”
“What country are we in now?”
“Which part of Singapore?”
And this is how our mind goes, I think, slipping quietly through the grilles of space and time like a raw yolk. Ted does not know the day and the date and misses the month by a month, but he knows the year and he knows exactly where we are, down to the number of the doctor's consultation room.
“Room 8,” he announces. “This used to be Dr. Jefferson’s room. Do you know Dr. Jefferson, my boy?”
“I have not had the honour of knowing him well,” replies the doctor, “but I have heard much about him. Dr. Jefferson was—is—one of the most respected figures in our department.”
“Well, yes, yes,” murmurs Ted distractedly. “A great chap. One of the sharpest minds around here—sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, I used to say—we wrote many papers together, many, many papers, a textbook even. Have you read any of our works? You have? Good, good I hope you found them useful, though they must be terribly outdated by now, research progresses at such a breakneck speed these days…you did? That’s very kind of you.”
The doctor smiles. “Now, I'm going to name three objects. When I’m through, I want you to repeat them …”
When the doctor is done with his tests, he asks to speak privately with me for a moment and invites Ted to wait outside the room with a nurse.
“Why?” Ted demands, straightening his back and gripping the armrests of his chair. “I want to know what is going on. What do you have to say to my wife that you do not wish to say in front of me?”
The doctor pats Ted’s hand reassuringly. “It’s just a standard part of my assessment, Prof Lim,” he says. “We will not make any important decisions without you present, you have my word on that. Mrs Lim can update you on what we have spoken about later.”
“Ted, dear,” I say, “be good and wait outside. Don’t make things difficult for the doctor here.”
“I am a doctor too,” says Ted. “A senior consultant, in fact the Head of Neurology in this hospital before I retired.” He leaves the sentence dangling, as though uncertain what it should mean.
“And we have only the greatest amount of respect here for you at the hospital, Prof Lim,” says the doctor, standing up and opening the door as the nurse helps Ted up from his seat. “Please be assured of that.”
When Ted is out of the room, the doctor resumes his seat and puts away the clipboard.
“Mrs Lim,” he says. “How has Prof Lim been at home?”
“He keeps looking for his glasses,” I say. “He unfolds the papers but does not read it. Sometimes he shut himself in his study for hours, and when I enter I find him staring blankly at his bookshelf or a stack of research papers on his desk, doing nothing, at times in darkness.”
“Yet at other moments,” I continue, “just when I have resigned myself to losing him, he says something so painfully ordinary it is as though his old self is back—sitting there at the kitchen table, peering at me over the papers. Reclining on his favourite arm-chair with an opened book on his chest, gazing out at the sky. Curling up in bed with his back against my shoulder. And at these moments, sometimes this wild hope rises in me that perhaps, just perhaps, the clock in his brain has been reset and he is fine, he is fine again, and we have been given a second chance.”
Another pause. Tick, tick, tick, goes the heartbeat of time from the doctor’s metallic watch, tick, tick, tick.
“And then this morning,” I say abruptly, “he woke up before dawn, saying that Valerie was late for school.”
Wordlessly, the doctor reaches out and puts his hand over mine. Somehow that act breaks something in me, and the words that I have accumulated for so long behind silence spurts out, like blood.
“We hardly spoke about it, you know.”
“Valerie,” I say, and my throat seizes up, clamping down upon the sound that should follow. I try again. “Valerie’s death.”
“Was there any particular reason why?” the doctor asks quietly after a moment.
I shrug and it ends up as a rasping laugh, the way loose change rattles in an empty container.
“No,” I say, “no reason at all. Somewhere along our marriage we simply stopped talking about how we felt. Even before that happened. We didn’t have much time with each other, you see. Ted used to work long hours at the hospital and when he was home, he usually stayed in his study, reading medical texts or writing papers. And when Valerie came along a year into our marriage, I simply threw myself whole-heartedly into my role as her mother.
“I’m not saying that our marriage was a cold and unhappy one. No, we were happy, or at least contented, and in our own ways I believe we still loved each other. I understood that his role as a doctor demanded long hours from him, and I fully supported him in that. It was just that we got used to spending increasingly separate lives from each other, and in the process we simply stopped talking. That’s all.”
The doctor waits. His hands, I notice, are already liver-spotted, though his face is smooth and crinkles into lines only at the edges of his eyes. There is no wedding ring on his finger.
“And so when…that happened, we just couldn’t. We couldn’t talk about it. Silence is like debris, you know—you don’t realize how much has accumulated over the years until you revisit it one day, and suddenly there is this thick squalid dirt wall where a doorway once was. We didn't have the energy then to begin chipping away at it with our bloodied hearts. Instead we simply retreated back into our separate worlds, the worlds we were most familiar with: he to the hospital and study, I to the rest of the house.”
“It must have been hard for you,” says the doctor. “For the both of you.”
I imagine Ted sitting outside on one of the hard plastic chairs in the waiting room, gazing at the pale walls and linoleum floor, and I wonder if he remembers what he is waiting for.
“We never knew,” I say after a while.
“That she had been seeing a psychologist there. That she had been taking anti-depressants. That she had walked out in front of a bus one night a year before and claimed that she had not meant to when the driver swerved in time. We never knew. We never knew until the Australian police called us, until it all came flooding out in the news. All those quotes from her classmates and Psychology professors at the university, the Chinese restaurant she was moonlighting at, the blog that we never knew she kept. Her Facebook statuses. The poetry she sent to literary journals, the YouTube videos of her strumming the ukelele and singing. The media dug up far more about her in hours than I—we—ever found out about her in years. We are such terrible parents, aren’t we?”
“Mrs Lim,” the doctor says, “I believe that all of us do only the best that we can under the circumstances that we are given. I believe that you did your best. I believe that Prof Lim did his best, in the only ways that he knew how to. Don’t blame yourself—or him—for things that have happened, things that you no longer have any control over.”
I shake my head. My eyes are clouding up now, and I fasten my gaze upon a spot above the door so that my tears will not fall.
“But now I’m losing Ted,” I murmur, “losing him even before his death, and yet again there is so much about him that I do not know. I know nothing about his work. His research. What he is most proud of and passionate about, whether he has any regrets, any amends that he needs to make, places that he wants to visit, things that he wants to do before he is completely lost. I will never know how he felt about Valerie. It must have been so hard for him then, as a doctor and neurologist: how else could he possibly have felt, having devoted his life to making accurate diagnoses and saving people, yet failing utterly to diagnose and save his own daughter? And yet this never occurred to me then: I was suffering, and I wanted only to spare him the added agony of having to comfort me. It is only now, only so much later, that I realize how much he must have been suffering then too. But it is too late now. Too late. Forty six years of life spent together, so much time, wasted.”
“There is still time, Mrs Lim,” says the doctor. “There is still time left with Prof. Make the most of it.”
I smile, and the tears that have been amassing at the brink of my eyelids spill down. The doctor hands me a tissue from a box on his table, and I wonder, for a moment, how many tissues he has to hand out in a day. How many my husband had to hand out in his day.
“Who, by the way,” I ask, “is this Dr Jefferson that my husband spoke so fondly about? Would it be possible to arrange a meeting with him? I’m sure my husband would wish to meet an old friend he still remembers and thinks so highly of. And I would love to talk to Dr Jefferson as well and learn more about the work he and my husband did together.”
The doctor hesitates.
“He was my predecessor,” he replies at last. “The former Head of the Department of Psychiatry. But I’m afraid it would not be possible to arrange such a meeting. He passed away of lung cancer a couple of years ago. Your husband was at the funeral.”
It is evening now, and Ted and I are walking along the Helix Bridge that spans across the Marina Bay. A delicate steel tubular structure shaped like the double helix of a DNA, it has circular letters scattered on the floor—c, g, a, t—that light up in red and green at night. The four bases that form DNA, Ted had once told me a long, long time ago—it is amazing how these four simple building blocks can give rise to all the infinite varieties of human beings in this world. If more of us were more deeply aware of this, there would be far fewer wars arising because of race and religion.
“Do you know what these are?” I ask Ted, who is shuffling beside me, his gaze disinterestedly glancing off people and the silver arcs that encase us.
Ted casts a glance at the circles.
“Circles,” he says, and then looks up and away.
“No,” I say, tapping on his arm urgently to bring his attention back, “but what are in these circles?”
He ignores me, and veers upon a viewing platform jutting out from one side of the bridge. I hurry after him, an old woman toddling after a bent-back old man, side-stepping the amused and curious and mildly annoyed passersby in my way.
Ted reaches the railings. Gripping them with his veined knuckles, he gazes out at the skyscrapers of the Central Business District beyond the bay. Reaching his side, I look out as well. The sky is a beautiful blend of coral and orange and azure, and the water is as still as glass, an impressionistic inverted painting of the world above it. I would love to paint this, I think with a rush of sadness, I would have painted it.
“You would have painted this,” says Ted.
“You would have painted this,” Ted repeats. His brows are furrowed, as though he is speaking in a foreign language and focusing on getting the pronunciation of the words right.
I do not reply at once. Ted turns and looks at me, and his eyes are a clear expressionless grey, a grey as still as the water beneath.
“Why did you stop painting?” he asks, with the same careful enunciation and furrowed brow—and suddenly, it occurs to me that he is taking an intense amount of concentration to maintain this conversation.
I cannot pause or linger; I need to hurry out my answers to help him.
“Because Valerie came along and I couldn’t paint and look after her at the same time,” I say rapidly.
Ted blinks and swallows. He looks away, back into the distance. For a moment, I think I have lost him again. Then he turns back to me and says: “But you started again when she was in Australia.”
My eyes are welling up and a lump is forming in my throat but I have no time to start babbling like a baby, not now.
“Yes,” I manage to sputter, “I did.” Which is not an answer, not at all an answer in a moment like this, I need to do better but I can say nothing else.
“Why then did you stop?” Ted asks urgently, eyes flashing as though he realizes he is reaching the end of his thread of memory, his last coin at a payphone.
There is no time to think about this, to weigh the consequences of honesty and lying, to consider delicately rewiring it in a better light.
I take a ragged breath and let it out. “Because I thought that was why Valerie didn’t tell me anything. Because I seemed too happy to be painting again, too happy almost to be rid of her; I spent too much time on the phone telling her all about my paintings and my plans to open a studio, and I showed her too little concern and asked her far too few questions about her life, and she must have not had the heart to break my bubble. She has always been such a kind and thoughtful child, Ted. It was my fault, Ted. It was all my fault, I was so selfish and I failed as her mother. I failed.”
Ted turns away again and blinks several times, hard. I wonder if he is feeling bitterly disappointed in me, or if I have lost him somewhere in the maze of my monologue.
Then he turns back and says simply: “I fell in love with you because of your painting.”
And then he smiles, a tentative smile that lights up his grey eyes, and it is the smile of the eighteen-year-old boy with the side-sweep and nervous air, hands jammed in trouser pockets, who meets my eyes across the varnished brown expanse of gallery floor as I stand in a blue dress beside my artwork, facing the flash of camera bulbs.