We’ve been back for almost 3 weeks now, and I think we’re finally settling into some kind of routine. Arddun now sleeps at 8-ish, if we’re lucky. She no longer sleeps in a cot, since she figured out how to climb out of the portacot and my old bedroom is too squashy to try and fit in a traditional wooden one. She now sleeps on the rollaway bed in my old bedroom — the one lots of my friends used to crash on when they stayed overnight. One night, she got her leg stuck under the gap between her bed and the top bunk where Tony was sleeping. One morning, we found her curled up in the tiny alcove under my old desk, between the rollaway bed and the wall. But for the most part, Arddun has learnt to sleep in a Big Girl bed and to wake up cheerful.
We still live out of our suitcases, most of which are sitting on the living room floor. We still put things back where my mum used to leave things. It still feels like her house, but we feel less like visitors now and more like housesitters.
There are things I’ve rediscovered about Singapore. Charming things, like how complete strangers – especially young children – would stare open-mouthed at Arddun when both of us walk by with Arddun in the stroller. A couple might even come over to peer right in at her, and then to look at me as if to figure out how a mother who looks like me managed to spawn a little girl who looks like her. One lady had asked my aunt if I had dyed Arddun’s hair that colour. She was serious, too.
I’ve always found it amusing how Australians love to truncate words and names. “Afternoon” becomes “Arvo”, “Uncoordinated” becomes “Unco”, and even “Anthony” becomes “Tony”, which then gets shortened to “Tone”. Singaporeans are similarly fond of mangling English – except they tend to leave whole words out. So I was rather taken aback one afternoon when the supermarket cashier looked deep into my eyes and asked,
“You got Passion?”
“Do you have… the Passion?”
Turned out, it was some sort of consortium discount card called Passion. And as it turned out, I didn’t have one. But for a moment there, I thought this cashier had gotten all Life of Pi on me.
I say all this, because it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like a half-breed the way I do now. My memories of Singapore – the version I grew up with – are fading with alarming celerity, especially now when we’re spending so much time in my old neighbourhood. Singapore has always moved at breakneck speed, but the consequence is that whole generations of landmarks and experiences get wiped away in the name of progress. The view from my mother’s window is now marred by 2 gobsmackingly tall and ugly high-rise buildings that had sprung up like thick, proud weeds in the last two years and without my permission. The cool evening breeze no longer blows through the kitchen window. My old playground no longer has sand. The food centre is too clean. The wet market is now a quarter of its size as air-conditioned, pre-packaged Westernised supermarkets continue to woo shoppers. It no longer has live chickens, so I can’t watch them get slaughtered at the back, then de-feathered, beheaded, and clingwrapped for a waiting customer.
That had always been my favourite part of shopping at the wet market. My first real classroom on life and death.
I am a native, I am still Singaporean, but I am almost a stranger to my homeland. I could never communicate well in Mandarin, but I am so noticeably half-foreign now, that storekeepers give up and speak to me in their broken English to save us all some time. My version of Singapore is still stuck in the 80s and 90s, mostly. The version today is so skewed towards the CHINESE-Chinese now, that I feel marginalised (along with my Indian, Malay and Eurasian friends, so at least I have company.)
I’m rambling a bit here, but the heart of the matter lies with my mother’s house. This flat, which belonged to my maternal grandmother, then to my aunt and my mother, then to my mother, will sooner or later belong to me. And as we live this half-life here, playing custodian and tourist all at once, I am desperately trying to soak up all these memories.
What it feels like to lie on our cold 1970 green-speckled faux-marble floor. What it sounds like, when the neighbours upstairs throw a big bag of rubbish down the chute. The creak of my old bed, when it rubs against the wardrobe. The whirr of the fans in the noon day heat.
The smell of a hot bowl of Ipoh Hor Fun, the crunch of deep-fried bread bits in a bowl of Lor Mee. The strains of Chinese opera from the neighbour’s radio, the sight of water everywhere when my other OCD neighbour washes the lift landing.
The slow, rhythmic thump of the karang guni man’s trolley as he makes his way down each flight of stairs. Karang guni… beh poh zhua….
Rubber slippers, slapping against the stairs as children gallop down… oil and smoke billowing from the exhaust as you walk past the coffee shop…
Hand-painted markings on the cobbled pavement, where you can barely make out the words “Cat-feeding point”. I love that someone remembered the hyphen.
Gertie on the 14th floor, steaming ikan kurau for the neighbourhood felines… the idle chatter of retired, gossipy neighbours draped on chairs at the void deck… the exchange of quick, small smiles when your eyes catch theirs.
It sounds like I’m trying to make my good-byes, and I probably am. I don’t know what we’re going to do with this house yet, even though I have a couple of ideas. I grew up in this tiny little flat with its two little bedrooms and its big, big heart, as did my aunt and my mother. It has always been my home away from home. But I strongly suspect that when it comes time to pack away my mother’s things… when it comes time to empty the cupboards and strip the mattresses and un-Blutack little posters and sayings from these dearly beloved walls, it will no longer be my home away from home.
Because my home away from home was my ma. And she is not here.
The thought of putting away my mother’s worldly belongings still squeezes the heart. But the head knows and understands, and waits for the day when the hands are steady.