Short story collection


If you would call

The abdominal pains arrived in spasms.  Chong Li Lian switched on the bedside lamp and glanced at the time piece on the side table. The hands showed the time to be 3.15 am. Even when she switched off the lamp, the luminous hands glowed, as if to indicate the auspiciousness of the moment. The tropical night was warm and she felt the cool fresh wind in spurts with the revolving fan sweeping to and fro. Occasionally, the distant sounds of the roaring motorbikes on the main road broke the stillness of the night.

The windows of the 6th storey apartment in Marine Parade were all shut to keep out the haze brought in by the winds from Sumatra where the annual large-scale burning of forests to clear the land were going on.

She hesitated to awaken her sleeping husband Chong Heng Tim, lying beside her in the large and ornate double bed and snoring gently. The baby was not due to arrive until the next week, she thought while rubbing her distended belly. Yet had not Dr Nirmala advised that the first sign of labour was the regular abdominal pains?  She had to be extra careful; she already had one miscarriage and the doctor had advised that she get to the hospital  any time that she felt uncomfortable. What an unearthly time to make an entrance? What if the baby decided to come now? Her meticulous mind traced to newspaper stories of babies being born in taxis. No she would have none of that.

“Tim, get up. I think the baby’s on the way.”

Looking rather vexed, he managed a half-mumble of one woken from deep sleep, ” Are you sure Lian? Not due till next week.”

She managed a smile, “Must be impatient.”

“Just like you. Always in a hurry. We’ll leave for the hospital now.” He got up and trudged on to the attached bathroom.

She changed from her nightgown to a loose fitting blue maternity dress that she had saved for the big moment. It had been a present from Heng  Tim’s mother before she passed away a year ago. Mother had been devastated at Li Lian’s miscarriage after two months of her first pregnancy and her last wish was that the couple would have a child soon , which would have been her first grandchild. Li Lian had been very close to her mother-in-law; she had lost both her parents many years ago.The moment was here and as Li Lian thought about it, she noticed a blush suffusing her face.  She had carried the baby for close to nine months and nothing would go wrong now. At the ripe middle age of thirty six, the moment of motherhood was near. Mother’s wish would soon come true. Tears welled up in her eyes when she thought how mother would have loved to be around to play with her grandchild.  Will it be a boy or a girl, she wondered; she and Tim would welcome both the same way. The doctor was prepared to determine the sex of the child, but both of them wanted it to be kept a surprise.

No more nasty jibes from nosy relatives about being childless. How her body has bloated up in the last few months. Uggh…..she viewed herself in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe and did not like what she saw. What a relief it would be to get back to her svelte figure. It would take a lot of dieting with self-discipline and workouts at the gymnasium. She combed her hair and dabbed powder on her face. Life seemed so sweet at the moment, never mind what fate awaited her tomorrow.

“What’s taking you so long, Lian?” she heard Tim’s voice.

“I have to pack a few things, you know.”

“You had all the time in the world and you are only packing now?”he sounded irritated.

“No need to get excited. I am having the baby, not you,” she said.

Why was he getting so excited? By now he should have known that her fastidious character would leave nothing to chance. If you want to know how to organise, learn from Li Lian, isn’t that what the class teacher always told the other girls . It always ended up with her being in charge of provisions for class picnics and excursions and how proud she always was when things went off without a hitch.

On their way out of the apartment, the odd lamp lighted the long narrow corridor. Since the night haze was not that thick, the visibility was fair.  She was also relieved because thick haze caused bouts of coughing in Tim, which sometimes resulted in breathlessness. Tim had been advised not to go outdoors in thick haze. Tim, who was holding the carrier bag, was adamant that they should walk down the six flights of steps instead of using the lifts. If the lifts broke down in the middle of its journey at this unearthly hour, what would they do, he asked? In their five years at these apartments, she had never been stuck in one of the lifts, but it was hardly the time or the occasion to discuss such a question. Besides, she could also conjure up other calamitous situations. Could they get a taxi at this hour and what happens if the taxi gets a flat tyre? She put out these rhetorical questions out of her mind and complied with her husband’s command. But she could not help suppress a smile- her  portly husband who abhorred any form of physical was walking down the stairs.

Safe at last, sighed Li Lian when the St Mark’s Hospital building came into view amidst its lush surroundings, after an uneventful taxi journey. She had  a disdain for hospitals; they brought unpleasant memories of dear ones in pain. How often had she foreseen this moment during the past nine months?   But if she reckoned that she would feel something magical, she was disappointed. The abdominal spasms had disappeared and now she was not sure whether she wanted to be admitted to the ward. Tomorrow, her sister Li Hwa might laugh at her when she might be discharged without delivering. It had happened to their neighbour’s daughter after a false alarm. The poor young girl was so ashamed that she did not show her face for two weeks outside the house until she gave birth. Li Lian was never one to stand being laughed at, especially by her sibling. But she had to reckon with her strong-willed husband who would have none of her pleas to return home.

Li Lian was wheeled into an air-conditioned single room in the hospital ward that was so spick and span that the apprehensions went away. I am a tyro at this game and what if I do not deliver tomorrow? Rationalising her actions always provided an easy way out for her to confront her anxieties. Hospital surroundings always had revulsion, but strangely, she felt at ease.

After a cursory examination and asking of a few questions, the kindly-looking nurse said, “Your gynecologist has been informed and she will be here first thing in the morning. You are unlikely to go into labour tonight. Take it easy and sleep well.”

Tim had ensconced himself in an armchair and was dozing off. With his disheveled clothes and uncombed hair,  he seemed out of place with the ambiance of the place. The maternity ward was where life started and it was necessary to welcome the newborns in style and not in an unkempt way.

“Looks like the baby is delayed,” she was awoken by Tim stroking her hair. Dawn had broken and Li Lian could hear a bustle of activity in the wards. She felt a bit uneasy and threw up. Without waiting for the nurses, Tim helped to clean her up. Only then did he call for the nurses’ help. It was so much like him to always come to her aid first. The nurse measured her blood pressure and temperature and said, “You are running a slight fever. Don’t worry, your gynecologist will soon be here.”

It had been a late marriage for both of them. Heng Tim had his own printing business that was doing well and Li Lian  was the secretary to the manager of a small company. Mutual acquaintances had brought them together and their friendship gathered momentum. She would not say that they were madly in love when they married. They treated each other as friends and had grown fond of each other over the five years they were married. It was a happy event when she conceived the second time , although there were some apprehensions about her age and whether the baby would be normal. But Dr Nirmala had assured the couple that they had nothing to worry about, even though she had one miscarriage two years ago.  Of course, there was a procedure to take some amniotic fluid from her abdomen to check if the baby was normal, but the doctor had advised against it.

In the morning, Dr Nirmala was called out for an emergency delivery and Tim had to leave for the office before consulting her. He  left word to be informed on what Dr Nirmala prescribed for the fever.

“I might be here for some time and am terribly bored. When you come in the evening, bring me a book to read. Just pick up the first one you come across on the top shelf of my table stand. Also call my office to tell them of my hospitalisation, but do not inform Li Hwa yet,” said Li Lian

“Should you be straining your eyes by reading? You have a slight fever”

”Never mind, it’s better than lying here doing nothing,” she said.

Dr Nirmala arrived later and gave her a thorough examination. She checked through all the charts that were on the clipboard attached to her bed. For the  slight fever , the gynecologist suggested that she remain in bed for the whole day, but with only a minor medication. In this late stage of pregnancy, the doctor was not keen to prescribe anything stronger..

” Doctor, does this spell trouble?” asked an anxious Li Lian.

“Not nowadays. It’s a mild fever and we should be able to bring it down before you deliver which could be in three to four days time , ” said Dr Nirmala.

“Will I need a caesarian?”

“Unlikely, everything else was normal at your last checkup two weeks ago,” said Dr Nirmala.

“I had a previous miscarriage'”

“That does not matter. We have come a long way in medicine. Remember Dolly the sheep last year- we are even able to clone life. Don’t worry,” Dr Nirmala assured her.

When Tim called in the late morning, Li Lian lied that the fever had subsided. She was not one to worry Tm unnecessarily but she mentioned that she would only deliver in three to four days’ time. She dozed off intermittently, but the constant movement of the nurses woke her up frequently. She had always imagined hospital food to be appetising, but she did not find it so at lunch time.

She spent the afternoon gloating on how meticulously she had planned for baby. One room of the 5 room apartment would belong to the child. The couple did not intend to have more than one child. If it was a boy, they would paint the room in blue; if girl in pink. She had already placed an order at Courts for a  play pen, a pram , a baby chair and a small book desk with a chest of drawers which would be delivered after she returned home.

From now one, the child would be the centre of their attention. They had done so far without a maid, but they might have to get one when Li Lian returned to work in three month’s time. They had bought an apartment near the well-known Tao Nan School so that the child would get priority in the balloting for primary one. She would also volunteer her services to the school in a couple of year’s time.  Beng Tim was brought up in a Mandarin-speaking house hold, while she used English at home. Although she disliked the Mandarin classes during her schooldays. she had just found out that one fun way of improving he command of the language was to watch Mandarin serials on TV Channel 8 . Nevertheless,  she would speak to the child in English while Tim would use Mandarin so that the child would be exposed to two languages in her formative years.

Tim arrived in the evening with a book and a small round cane basket of small white flowers.

“Someone  sent you this basket, Lian. I picked them up at the Nurses’ Station,” he told Julie.

“Whoever sent it could have dropped in to see me,” said Li Lian

“Maybe you were sleeping. There is no name on the card. It just says “To Li Lian with Best Wishes and Love”. This is the first time that I see a basket of jasmines.”

Li Lian took hold of the basket and looked at the card.  “This is too amateurish to be from a florist. Looks like someone just picked the jasmine flowers and arranged them in a basket. And the writing on the card looks like that of a child.”

The small room became redolent with the fragrance of the jasmine flowers. “Take them away. I feel nauseous,” said Li Lian, putting her hand over her nose.

Tim’s first reaction was to take the basket out and throw the flowers in the trash bin outside the room, but then he hesitated and placed the basket in the far corner of the room.

“They would not trouble you from there,.The person who sent these may come for a visit later, “ he said.

Tim fussed over her on what she ate, what she did, whether she vomited again , whether she slept and what the doctor said.

” Look, I am being well taken care of,” she protested, “Anyway, how is the haze today?”

“Well, I am not coughing, so it’s not too bad,” he smiled.

“Tim, don’t take risks. Stay indoors.”

“Lian, mine is a desk job, I don’t go out often. People come to see me,” he said

A couple of Li Lian’s  office colleagues called in to see her and stayed for a while which cheered her up immensely. They were all agreed that it was probably the office prankster Wahab Ghows, who sent her the jasmine flowers. When dinner arrived, Tim had to coax Li Lian to eat.

Time has wings when you are with loved ones. Before long, it was time for Tim to leave. “If she is not due yet for three to four days, why should she spend another night in the hospital?” he demanded of the houseman when Dr Nirmala had not appeared in the evening.

“”She has a slight fever. Just a precaution. Nothing to fret about. It is better she stays here rather than go home where she may exert herself. Also only Dr Nirmala can discharge her. You could consult her tomorrow morning,” the houseman on duty told him.

Tim and Li Lian  got into a small argument over the lie that she had told him about the fever. Around nine o’clock, Li Lian had to persuade Tim to return home. He looked very tired.  He wanted to stay the night, but she would not allow it. Li Lian had planned to watch the Mandarin serial ” The Price of Peace” on the television screen in her room, but by the time Tim left, the telecast was already over. So,she switched on the bed light and took out one of the books he had brought. It was the penguin classic “Lady in White”, that was the prescribed text book for English Literature for her final school exam.

Trust Tim to bring the correct book. He had picked up the book from a stack of school books that she was going to donate to the Salvation Army. Since she saw no point in reading the book, she extended her hand to place it on the bedside table. A small note fell out of it on to the bed sheet.

On the yellowing piece of paper was neatly written in blue ink, a dedication that read

Dear Lian ,

Drink hot coffee,drink hot tea ,

Burn your lips and remember me.

Violet Sarjan

Li Lian smiled- why that note must be about 20 years old , in the days where every student carried an autograph book and got their friends to write in them. She wondered how the note got torn off and ended up between the leaves in this book.

She smiled again. She remembered dear Violet and she sighed deeply. Her memories traced back to the first day that she met the hapless girl. They were both at the  Marymount Convent Secondary School with their fathers applying for admission to secondary one class. The frail little girl was diffident and did not even return her smile. She was pretty, but the over-sized long pinafore made her look awkward. When the Principal announced that there was only one place left for new students, Li Lian had felt resentment towards her. Two days later , when she joined the class, she was surprised to find Violet also there. Being new girls to the class, the two stuck together for the first few days and their friendship burgeoned. Violet’s father was the Assistant Manager of an Indonesian Bank who had just been posted  to Singapore. Violet spoke with an Indonesian accent that she found amusing.

With her ebullience, Li Lian became the natural leader of the partnership with Violet always on her tow. They studied together, ate together in the tuck-shop and gossiped together., with Violet always content to play second fiddle. The other girls nicknamed Violet, Li Lian’s shadow.

The girl had a melancholic look about her and reserved her smile for a very few people. As both of them blossomed into curious teenagers, the two girls had more secrets to share. They discussed the lives of the rich and the famous, the imagined love affairs of their teachers and fellow students. The discussions graduated to taboo subjects of sex and drugs. They gleaned all their knowledge from books, the radio and later the television.

Then one day in secondary three, Violet announced that her parents had separated and that her mother had left the home. She was devastated and took a long to get over it. During those troubling times, Li Lian was the only support for the forlorn girl. She became very dependent on Li Lian for emotional support and made more demands on her time. She would start weeping for no rhyme or reason. At first, Li Lian had felt so proud that she was the pillar of strength for Violet; after a while it became bothersome. It was then the word “parasite ” entered her vocabulary from her biology lessons and she found no better words to describe Violet. Li Lian started inventing flimsy excuses to get away whenever Violet approached her, but she always felt a tinge of regret when she had to lie. These were indeed troubling times for what is lonelier than distrust?

Soon Violet began absenting herself from class in the crucial final year of school. Whenever she appeared, she looked emaciated. After much wheedling from Li Lian, the truth came out. Violet started suffering from chronic asthma and needed frequent hospitalisation. She had asthma as a small girl and now it was recurring. He auntie, the father’s sister who had come to care for her after her mother left, had not meant to publicise the illness other than to the teachers.

Li Lian remembered a particular day when Violet had shown her the pink marks left by hyperdemic needles on her arm. Li Lian had wept uncontrollably , after which she had felt very close to her and to protect her. Her dearest wish then became to see Violet in class each day. The sheer sight of Violet cheered her.

It was during this unhappy period that Li Lian came down with chickenpox and was in quarantine for a week. When she resumed classes, she was told that Violet had stopped coming to class altogether. When this went on for more than 3 days , Li Lian had visited Violet’s house for the first time to find out the cause. Violet had been hospitalised again and the auntie finally agreed to let Julie accompany her to the Singapore General Hospital.

What she saw in the disconsolate ward had broken her heart. Violet lay with her face in an oxygen tent gasping for breath. In spite of her serious condition, she managed a weak smile.

“You don’t have to talk,” Li Lian had said . There they were holding each other’s hands with tears streaming down Li Lian’s face.

She still had vivid recollections of the scene. After a while , Violet spoke, “Will I be around much longer?”  Li Lian had to press her face against the oxygen tent and do a bit of lip reading.

“What are you saying?” Li Lian had asked.

“I think it’ll be over soon.”

Li Lian had wept, “Don’t say that. I need you around.”

“It is Violet who needs Li Lian,” Violet whispered and gave a weak smile. “Will you remember me?”

Li Lian had been too distraught to say anything. She had never felt so helpless.

“Will you come tomorrow? Violet needs Li Lian,” said Violet

“I promise I will come in the afternoon,” Li Lian wiped the tears from her face.

The auntie lay her hand gently on Li Lian’s shoulder. “Let her rest. She has been cheered up by your visit.”

Li Lian had never felt so miserable in her life as when she left the ward on that day. When she returned home that evening, her mother was almost in a hysterical state, thinking that something untoward had happened to her daughter. She calmed down when Li Lian explained the situation. That night, Li Lian cried herself to sleep.

The memory of the next day had been blurred by the passage of years, but now it came clearly into view. Li Lian had woken up with a slight headache and her intention was to skip school and visit Violet in the morning instead of the afternoon. Surely her teacher would understand. When she was walking to the bathroom in the 3rd storey apartment, she felt everything moving. Suddenly her legs gave way and she found herself sitting on the floor. Her mother rushed her immediately to the outpatient’s clinic because she thought it was connected to her earlier bout of chickenpox. There was already a large queue of patients waiting to be attended to. By then, Li Lian  was feeling better and she wanted to go and  visit Violet at the hospital, but her mother insisted that she consult the doctor.

Around 11 o’clock, one of the doctors came out and spoke through a loud hailer “Ladies and Gentlemen, the meteorological office has confirmed that there were slight earth tremors experienced in many parts of Singapore early this morning because of a severe earthquake in Sumatra. It is the first time that this has happened here. Many of you might have felt dizzy or seen the slight movement of buildings. If that is the case, there is nothing to worry about. You are not sick, you might want to go home.”  There were similar announcements in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil by various nurses.

There was a murmur and many patients started leaving. Li Lian left her mother and rushed to the hospital in a taxi. As soon as she entered the ward, she had a premonition that something was wrong. She rushed to the room to find an empty bed with the bed sheet removed. She had sat down on the floor and wept until a nurse came and took her to a resting room.

As she remembered the incidents that happened many years ago, her eyes moistened. During the first few years, she had remembered Violet during the anniversary of her death.  She kept in contact with Violet’s auntie until she left for Indonesia. On the tenth anniversary, she had posted Violet’s photograph in the obituary column of the newspaper with the word ” To live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”  She had received a letter from Violet’s auntie in Bandung after a few months saying that she was very touched by Li Lian’s gesture.  Over a time the images had blurred and Violet slowly faded from her memory.

Her eyes fell on the basket of jasmines  in the corner of the room and she could still get the fragrance. She did not like it one bit. She rang for the nurse and requested that the bouquet be removed because she was feeling nauseous. When she looked at the clock , her eyes fell on the date of 7th March. Such a coincidence, Violet had passed away on the day of the earth tremors on 7th March 1977. It had indeed been a frightening and sad experience for her. And now 20 years later to the letter, would she give birth on this day, she wondered? It would be a good story to tell her child, she decided.

As she thought more about the coincidence, she felt uneasy. She wanted to sleep, but could not. She felt cold all over and needed three blankets to keep warm. The nurse turned down the air-conditioning, but it did not help. She asked for the windows to be opened to let fresh air in.   She looked out into the dark night now thick with haze, lit up only by ghostly looking street lights. She thought she saw the haze fluttering  in the wind or was it the curtains?  Her eyes were deceiving her.  There was a giggling sound that seemed to come from the corridor through the half-opened door of her room. Her thoughts began to trouble her. After all, many patients may have spent their final hours in the bed she was lying and their souls may be still haunting the place. She was not one to believe in the supernatural and thus shut out these thoughts from her mind. She asked for a sleeping tablet, but the houseman advised against it.   The nurse brought a cup of warm ovaltine.

After drinking the hot beverage, she dozed off for a while. She woke up feeling extremely feverish and hot and rang for the nurse.  The nurses came in and started sponging her with cold water. The houseman had put her on a drip. Within minutes, she felt the abdominal spasms starting again at regular intervals. Suddenly she felt that she was lying in a pool of water.

“The water bag gas burst. Move her to the labour ward. Page Dr Nirmala,” she heard a distant voice.

“Call my husband please,” she shouted.

She was in the midst of labour and pain seared through her body. Although feeling delirious she consoled herself that this was all for her child.  She had always imagined childbirth to be a magnificent affair, but this was a far cry from that. She could hear the calming voice of Dr Nirmala asking her to push over and over again. After what seemed like a lifetime of pain, she found herself holding a l little baby girl to her to her body. She was so relieved that the pain had lessened and the baby looked normal. She remembered Tim entering the room , holding her hand and stroking her forehead.

” The beauty entered the world at 5 am,” said Tim.

Li Lian smiled weakly, ” Yes, she is a beauty. How is your cough? The haze is bad.”

“Let’s talk about you and the baby now. I am all right,” he said

The nurse gently took away the baby despite Li Lian’s protestations.

It had been an enervating experience and the last thing she remembered was Dr Nirmala’s voice saying to Tim, “Cut down the number of visitors if you can. She is having a high fever. I have given her medication to bring it down.”

Li Lian was in oblivion. She felt light and was floating in the air and everything seemed so carefree. Now and then, she would find a petal or flower gliding past in the wind. She flew up to the petals but each time she got near, they raced away from her. Finding a bench, she seated herself to catch her breath. She was distracted by a giggle. Turning around, she was startled to see a girl who resembled Violet. Her voluptuous body shimmered through the diaphanous nightgown that she was wearing. The girl looked absolutely stunning. She carried a garland of jasmine flowers that Li Lian used to see in Indian flowershops.

“What are you doing here?” asked Li Lian.

“What a short memory you have?” the girl replied.

“What is this place?”

“It’s home. See what it has done to me,” said the girl twirling the curls of her hair.

“Why, you haven’t aged. Are you always this way?”

“Most of the time. Glad that you came. Now we can be together,” smiled the girl.

“Do you want me to stay?”

“What a silly question?” The girl looked cross.

“But I can’t. Honestly, I cannot.”

“You promised to come. You promised not to forget me. Let me put this garland around your neck to welcome you.” said the girl plaintively.

“I haven’t forgotten you. I have to return to my husband and baby”

“But you can’t leave me. You promised to come.”

“I have to leave. You must have other friends here, “said Li Lian

“I won’t let you go,” the girl gripped her wrist, “You promised to come”

“Let me go. Let me go”, shouted Li Lian trying to break loose.

“What’s the matter” the nurse was holding hand.

“Don’t let them take me away. I want my baby,” Li Lian’s tears were streaming down her face.

“Nobody’s going to take you or your baby away. I ‘ll bring your daughter to you”.

Li Lian spent the better part of the next hour holding  her daughter wrapped up in a pink blanket. She was advised against breastfeeding the baby because of her fever. Li Lian could not stop crying for a long time. When the nurses tried to help, she just brushed them aside. After that they left her alone.

“Where’s my husband?” she asked.

“He left about an hour ago, Do you want us to call him?” asked a nurse.

Li Lian decided not to because he would have to come out into the haze to come to the hospital.

She dabbed her eyes and looked to the corner of the room. The nurse had forgotten to remove the basket with the jasmine flowers, but they had all dried up. She rang for the nurse who removed the flowers from her room.

“Dear Violet, I am so sorry,” Li Lian whispered to herself,’ Rest in peace. I have not forgotten you.” Then she went to sleep with the daughter sleeping in the baby cot next to her.

The nurse came to record her temperature in the afternoon and announced that the fever had subsided. Dr Nirmala came on her rounds to check on her together with the pediatrician. Both mother and child were well,they concluded. The baby had to be taken to be placed under ultraviolet rays because she had developed jaundice.

“Nothing to worry about. Most babies develop jaundice and they get over it,” said the pediatrician

When Tim appeared later with Lian’s sister Li Hwa, there was look of relief in his face. “ I am glad that they have taken you off the drip” he said, “I phoned up earlier, the nurse did not want to disturb your sleep.”

After going to see how the baby daughter was doing in the ultraviolet room and leaving the baby with Li Hwa, he came to her and held her arm. He looked at it closely. “I remember that the drip was on you left arm. Why is there a red mark on your right wrist?

Li Lian gazed at her wrist . Then she replied, “Would you believe if I told you?”

[All characters in the story are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]

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