The clouds, as if keeping tabs on her emotions, were sombre and looming. They threatened to unleash all that they carried, if only given the slightest of commands. She stepped into the room. It was the same as it was the last time she saw it — white, windowless and contrasted by dark, antiquated furniture lining the walls. This structure used to bring her comfort — clarity surrounding this murkiness of a world — but that day, it seemed unfeeling.
All eyes turned to her. The pendulum in the grandfather clock continued to swing as if on a mission to see the end of the world. Seconds passed and no one said a word. Her eyes found a familiar frame on the bed. She fixated on it, but it did not stir. Unevenly, she took a step forward. Gingerly, she stretched out her arm. It felt warm, but still, it did not stir. In a distance, a voice choked through: “Give her a hug. She had been saying she missed you.” She did not want to. What do you mean had? Someone prodded her back gently and her body reluctantly shifted forward.
Four weeks ago
“Hello, my dear. How are you? Have you been well?” A raspy voice came through the receiver. Her calls always started the same way. It used to give her a sense of comfort, which recently had turned into mild annoyance. Once, it brought her back to clangs of the steel turner against the wok, the vaguely herbal smell of braised duck, and the hot steam rising from the massive pot of rich chicken soup. Now, it began to irk her.
“Popi, you call me every single week and ask me the same things. Aren’t you tired? I’m well. Otherwise, you would know.”
“I’m sorry, my dear. Have I caught you at a bad time?” She made out a hint of sadness in the voice that used to soothe her, but she ignored it.
“No. It’s fine.”
“Remember some weeks ago I was telling you about how the sunflowers in the garden were blooming beautifully? They are starting to wilt. You should come take a look soon. What should I plant next? Succulents maybe? Or perhaps some baby’s breath? I know you like those. Oh that reminds me. What do you want to have for our next dinner gathering? I am thinking of braised duck. You always seem to have such a penchant for that …” Oh god, please stop rambling on. She rolled her eyes, then felt guilty momentarily, forgetting that no one could see her.
Three weeks ago
“Popi, I hear it in your voice. You are smoking now, aren’t you?” She was seething, “Didn’t you quit a few years back? Why are you doing it again?”
“The house is large, my dear. And very empty. It echoes with every step I take. It knows me more intimately than anyone of you, but I cannot reciprocate. What if its future is my future?”
She was taken aback. She wanted to rebuke her, but what could she possibly say?
Two weeks ago
“Popi!” She sobbed, “Babi is right outside my door! I locked myself in but I think she is heading for the keys. Popi help!”
“Unlock the door and hand your Babi the phone. Let me speak to her.”
Sometimes, just sometimes, she forgets how her Popi sounds when she becomes authoritative. Understandably so, since she had never been on the receiving end. Popi would make a great teacher. She would never have to raise her voice.
She opened the door just slightly and slipped her hand through the gap to pass the approaching figure her phone. She felt a stare, but her heart felt safe.
One week ago
She stood in front of the gate, lamenting internally that she was here once again. Why do I have to be here? I am not the only one she has. She slipped the silver key into the gate; the same gate that had greeted her since her earliest memories. It creaked open as she turned the rusted lock clockwise.
And there she was, as always, a creature of habit in her rocking chair. The chair moved back and forth gently, as if of its own volition. She remembered being fascinated by it as a child. How does it move on its own when there are no hands touching it. The clacking of her shoes against the ground woke Popi up.
“You are here!” Her senses were assaulted by the overwhelming smell of talcum powder as a barrel of a body hurled herself forward. Of course it didn’t hurt. It was all fluff; fluff that she would soon begin to miss.
Pulling her hand, Popi led her to the dining hall.
“Here, read these for me. These letters … they just dance in front of my eyes. I feel so useless sometimes.”
“This is from the hospital, reminding you that you have a full-body check-up coming up. It’s next week.”
“Could you accompany me? You are good at explaining all these medical jargons.”
“I don’t have the time to go with you. Ask someone else. Or go alone. If you don’t understand anything, get the nurses there to break it down for you. I don’t study medicine, and I don’t have the luxury of time to explain stuff to you.”
“Okay, okay, it’s fine,” Popi gently rubbed her arm. “Don’t be annoyed. It’s fine. I will go by myself. It’s not like I haven’t been there alone.”
What? Who is she trying to guilt?
“I made some goreng pisang. Your favourite! Let me get them.” She got up unsteadily, her shoulders slumped. With age, or with defeat?
She buried her face in talcum powder. How comforting. How soothing. A week ago it was bothersome, and now it has become a perennial reminder.
She sat in the rocking chair, remarking wistfully how smooth it rocked from the many years of use. Droplets of rain started to fall. First it was light, and then it was not. From the chair she observed the rain, and suddenly she thought, the rain has a secret it wants to tell. She commanded her bare feet with desperation, calming down when she saw they obliged. You have such beautiful feet. It’s as if they never had to deal with harsh realities. She tilted her chin toward the clouds. As the rain beat on her relentlessly, she released her anguish in a primal cry. It soon became indistinguishable whether her pain came from within, or whether it was the rain. It did not matter.
“My dear, you look great in your new uniform. You look great in everything. Now, hold on to your Babi’s hand and hurry along, or else you will be late for your first day of school! Tell me all about the new friends you will have made when you are back!”
“Oh, you poor thing! How is your leg doing? Does it hurt? I know you don’t like them, but these herbal soups will help you. The fracture will heal soon enough, and you will be up and running in no time at all. Then you and I will be able to play badminton in the playground again. How does that sound?”
“I am going back soon. Here, take this. It’s a secret. Don’t tell your Babi I gave it to you. Buy some sweets and snacks. Share them with your brother. Be kind to each other, okay?”
Pretty flowers. The house is filled with them. People as well. She comes back once a year on this day, collects her flowers, and drives 15 minutes in silence to where her Popi now resides. The memories are vague. She has even lost count of the years that have gone by. All that remains are her feelings. The rocking chair still sways and the furniture remains in place, but the person they were once associated with is no longer near. She sits beside the marble plaque erected near the summit. The mountain oversees the area. Together with her Popi, she relives her feelings, bit by bit. They are no longer as intense as they once were, but she knows, even when her memory fails her, every 27th of September, Popi will find her there, longing for her return.