This piece was written by Grace Ng, FASS + USP, Year 1.
Grace wrote this as a pre-seminar assignment for the Creative Arts Programme 2011, using the prompt “Winnowing Memories”. It was part of the portfolio for which she was selected for the Creative Arts Programme Mentorship Attachment 2011-12 under Meira Chand. It was also selected for publication in Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)’s yearbook in 2012.
“What’s that, dear?”
She sits at the desk by the window, the delicate morning sunlight barred across her wispy figure. It shines through her feathery hair, light, silver and shining down the smooth hump of her back. Even her soft, flowing dress seems to be woven with rays of light, creasing gently in her lap and in the tender grip of her tender hands. She is the sunlight, looking down upon her desk with the warm, placid smile on her face that she always has.
Leaning down next to her, he places a finger on her loose, yielding cheek, runs it down her liver-spotted skin.
“What’re you looking at, dear?”
It takes her a while to realise he’s there, to register his hand caressing her face with an inward slice of a breath and a drop of the heart. It takes her even longer to turn her head, slowly, with the grace and dignity of a hovering cloud, towards him. Her eyes cast a dim light on his, her pale, pearl-like eyes, gazing upon him with an ultimate sense of calmness that makes him break out in one of his awkward smiles.
“What’re you looking at, dear?”
“Oh,” she says, still gazing serenely at him. “I’m just looking through some photos.”
He turns his head towards the desk, his eyebrows raised. Photos are scattered like windblown leaves across the table. They are paper butterflies, almost luminous, white and bleeding sunlight. He picks one up, slides it between his fingers, stroking the tiny raised hatchings
on its surface. It almost feels old. A stale yet intimate smell clings to it, of dust, dirt and baby powder.
The photos are torn. He holds them up, but they disappear in the sunlight, uncomfortably fragile. He studies the torn and ragged edges in shadowed relief. What happened to them? he thinks. The damage is indiscriminate, slashing across torsos, along rivers, shredding through beds of flowers and the centres of faces. What’s left is indistinguishable – a finger here, a mouth there, all disembodied and estranged.
“Why are you… why are you going through these?”
He looks back at her. She has returned her gaze to the shreds of photographs, her eyes gliding over them with the composure of a ship cutting through the ocean, that smile still on her face. It feels like an invisible shrug.
So he watches her look at those photos, one hand resolutely on her shoulder. The other hand fidgets and wrings itself pale at the knuckles. Leaves rustle outside the window. The clouds pass over the sky and the light flickers lazily above him. Still, she makes no sound. Habitually, he slides his hand across her thin cardigan, back and forth, back and forth. She remains encapsulated in silence.
This silence is not new to him. Not lately.
“Dear, why are you going through these?”
There is no answer.
He looks away, exhausted.
Then, he feels a twitch under his hand. His eyes dart back to her immediately and there she is, still silent and still like a sculpture of light except for her arm, which trembles with a premonition of movement. It lifts slowly, still trembling with a certain kind of uncertainty, circling
above the pile of photographs before it, and then it settles on one almost autonomously, such is the faint surprise in her eyes as it does.
“Dear,” she says, her voice high and airy, like a pipedream, “what’s this?”
He takes the photograph from her fingers.
“What is this, dear?”
He looks at it. He can’t make anything out at first – it’s black, white and faded, and just as torn as the rest of the photos. What is it? He holds it close to his face like the morning newspaper. A bush in the corner, a gazebo-like building to the side in the background. Something billows, maybe a cloud, but yet it’s around something that looks like a head, a face… a face surrounded with dark ringlets…
A face, a face surrounded with ginger ringlets and sparks in her eyes, her mouth opening with a laugh as though to catch the bright yellow afternoon sun, her arms open wide to embrace everything, the beautiful world and all its people, everything. Everyone around her is smiling, and everyone looks beautiful. The wind dances in the trees behind them and teases the hair of all the women and some of the men. The cameraman chuckles as he takes her picture, the flash going off at the wrong time and yes, he is beside her, wincing and holding his arms up like a fool with his upper lip scrunched…
“What is this, dear? It looks familiar.”
His head jolts up, his eyes alight with a quivering light.
“Why,” he says, bending down and holding the photograph before her, easing his free hand into her unyielding one. “It’s our wedding, see?”
He looks into her eyes, but they are filled with their usual calm vacuity, glazed with a transparent film of something that he could never recognise. Her finger trembles again, moving across the flimsy picture.
“Is this… this is me, then?”
His hand grips hers in a seizure of excitement.
“Yes, yes, that’s you, over there,” he says, grasping her other hand now, guiding it over the photograph. “See, that’s you, in the wedding gown your mother gave you, and she styled your hair too, remember? And that’s First Uncle in the corner over there; he’s eating one of the
chocolates from the party… Do you remember where this is? It’s the park outside the church; you can see the steeple over the bushes in the corner over there, we couldn’t find a good hotel to do it in so we decided that outdoors was always more beautiful, right…?”
He’s watching her face the whole time as he says these things, his voice getting higher and higher and louder and louder. He watches her eyes, stares through that patina of ice into the stagnant water beneath it, reflecting light with no life and no lustre. Can you see it? he says under his words, gripping her hand tight, squeezing the memory out of him and into her, trying so, so hard. Can you remember? Do you remember? He watches her, and every flick of her irises makes his heart stop.
“And that,” he says, finally settling on the edge of the rip in the photo, “is me.”
He wills her to stare at it, really look at it for the first time, and fill in the missing piece of the puzzle for herself. She has to, she’s come so close… and…
And there it is, just for a moment, he sees that spark in her eyes the dark ringlets, the ginger ringlets and the sparks in her eyes, shining the slightest bit out of the dark, impenetrable nothingness underneath. Her mouth twitches, opening just a little opening, opening wide to catch the bright afternoon sunlight as though to say something, take a shuddering, reviving breath. Her fingers curl, gripping with almost some sort of vitality opening, to embrace everything of the world and everything in it and with his heart in his throat and a relentless smile everyone is smiling, everyone is beautiful creeping up the corners of his face, he leans in to —
Her eyes dim.
The moment passes. Her body relaxes again, slumping against the chair in that smooth hump, her arms lying at its sides, her hair flat along it. Slowly, her hand drops from his grasp, his grip itself faltering as his gaze freezes upon hers.
“Funny…” she says, in her pipedream voice. “I don’t think… I ever got married…”
He lets her go, backs away. Once again, she sits at her desk with her dress creased gently in her lap, her hair woven in sunlight. She is the sunlight. She dissolves into it, fading and ethereal, like a mirage fading in the dying sun.
He looks back at the desk and the desk is clean, a wash of bare plywood.
Eyes widened, he cranes his neck and blinks into the bright sunlight draped over her shoulder, but the photos are gone, vanished in a liminal second. She stares at nothing.
He walks across the room, sits at the table, and pours himself a cup of coffee.
He sits and drinks, and once again, he’s the poor man whose own wife can’t even remember him.