Authors: Kevin Kwan
His nails were like onyx. They were perfectly formed and lightly buffed so that there was just a hint of sheen. Su Yi had never before seen such beautifully manicured nails on a man, and couldn't help but stare as his fingers counted out rupees for the woman manning a cart piled high with brightly colored candles and strange wax figures, some in the shape of babies, some in the shape of houses, and others resembling arms and legs.
“What are these wax sculptures for?” Su Yi asked.
“People burn them as favors, in the hopes that their prayers will be answered. The babies are for people hoping for a child, the houses are for those that want a new home, and the sick choose a body part that corresponds to their ailment. So if you are looking to heal a broken arm, this is the one you'd get,” he said, holding up a wax form of an arm with a clenched fist. “I bought two candles in pale red and blueâthey were the closest colors I could find to represent the British flag.”
“You must tell me what to do,” she said hesitantly.
“It's very simple. We just place them in the shrine, light them, and say a little prayer.”
As they walked up the hill with the lovely views of the Arabian Sea, Su Yi glanced at the imposing Gothic faÃ§ade of Mount Mary Church. “Are you sure they'll allow me to enter? I'm not Catholic.”
“Of course. I'm not Catholic either, but everyone is welcome. If anyone asks us what we're doing, we can tell them that we're lighting candles for Singapore. Everyone is aware of what's happening there right now.”
Stretching out his arm, he gestured gallantly at the arched front doors. Su Yi stepped into the church sanctuary, feeling self-conscious as her high-heeled shoes echoed against the black-and-white marble floor. It was her first time inside a Catholic church, and she stared in fascination at the vibrant frescos on the walls and the words painted in gold script against the majestic arch:
All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed
. The main altar reminded her of those in a Chinese temple, except that instead of a statue of Buddha, there was a beautiful small wooden one of the Virgin Mary dressed in gold-and-blue robes, holding an even smaller wooden baby Jesus.
“I didn't know there were so many Catholics in India,” she whispered to him, noticing the worshippers filling up the first four to five rows of pews, some kneeling in silent prayer.
“Bombay was a Portuguese colony during the sixteenth century, and they converted many Indians. This whole areaâBandraâis the main Catholic neighborhood.”
Su Yi was impressed. “You've only been here a few months, but you've come to know the city rather well, haven't you?”
“I like to explore different areas. Mostly I wander around the city out of sheer boredom.”
“Has life been that boring?”
“Before you arrived, everything was boring,” he said, gazing at her face intently.
Su Yi lowered her eyes, feeling her face begin to flush. They walked along the transept until they arrived at a side chapel where hundreds of burning candles flickered. He handed her the red candle and gently guided her hand as she placed its wick onto a flame. The whole ritual seemed strangely romantic.
“There. Now just find an empty slot for your candle. Anywhere you like,” he said in a hushed voice.
She placed hers on the lowest rack, next to one that was almost burned out. As Su Yi watched the flame begin to brighten, she thought of the island she had been forced to flee. She still wished she could have defied her father and stayed on. She knew she should be feeling grateful rather than angry at her father, especially in light of the latest news. The Jurong-Kranji defense line had finally been breached yesterday morning, and invading Japanese soldiers were probably all over Bukit Timah now, swarming her neighborhood as they made their way to the city center. She wondered what was happening at Tyersall Park, if it had sustained any bomb damage, or whether the troops had discovered and pillaged the place.
Su Yi closed her eyes and chanted a little prayer for everyone who remained at Tyersall Park and for her cousins, her aunties and uncles, and her friendsâeveryone who couldn't get off the island in time. When she opened her eyes, James was standing right in front of her, so close she could feel his warm breath.
“My goodness, you startled me!” she gasped.
“Do you wish to confess?” he said, leading her toward a wooden booth.
“I'm not sureâ¦should I?” Su Yi asked, her heart beginning to race. She wasn't sure she wanted to go into the dark box.
“I think it's time.” He opened the latticework screen door for her.
She stepped inside the confession booth hesitantly, surprised by how comfortable the cushion on the seat was as she sat down. It was plush velvet, and it felt all of a sudden like she was seated in the Hispano-Suiza that her father had given to her for her sixteenth birthday. Every time she was driven into town, clusters of people would run after the car in excitement. The Anglos would look in curiously, wondering which dignitary was inside the grand automobile, and she loved seeing their stunned expressions when they realized it was a Chinese girl. Children would try to grab on to the car, while young suitors would attempt to throw roses through the window in the hopes of winning her attention.
The window to the confession booth slid open, and she could see that James was sitting on the other side, playing at being the priest.
“Tell me, my child, have you sinned?” he asked.
She didn't want to say anything, but suddenly, she felt her lips moving uncontrollably. “Yes I have.”
“I can't hear youâ”
“I have sinned. I have sinned against you.” Again the words just pouring out even as she tried to keep her mouth closed.
“Speak up, dear. Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you. You're sitting one foot away from me,” Su Yi said, annoyed, as a bright flash of light coming through the latticework screen suddenly glared into her eyes.
“Can you hear me?” The voice sounded garbled as it morphed from English into Hokkien.
Suddenly it was all terribly bright, and she was no longer in the confession booth of Mount Mary in Bombay. She was in a hospital room, and her cardiologist was staring down at her. “Mrs. Young, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” she murmured weakly.
“Good, good,” Professor Oon said. “Do you know where you are?”
“Yes, you're at Mount Elizabeth. You had a cardiac episode, but we've managed to stabilize you and I'm very happy with the progress you're making. Do you feel any pain?”
“Good, you shouldn't. We have you on a constant dose of hydrocodone, so you should not have to feel any discomfort at all. Now, I'm going to send Felicity in. She's very eager to see you.”
Felicity entered and tiptoed rather awkwardly to her mother's bedside. “Oh Mummy! You're finally awake. They've had you sedated for the past two days so that your heart could rest. How are you feeling? You gave us quite a scare!”
“Where are Madri and Patravadee?”
“Oh, your lady's maids are right outside. They've been with you all this time, but you haven't known it. Francis only allows one of us in at a time.”
“I'm very thirsty.”
“Yes, yes. It's this medication they have you on, and the oxygen tube in your nose. It really dries out your throat. Let's get you some water.” Felicity looked around and found a water jug on a side table. “Hmm. I wonder if this is filtered or from the tap. Oh dear, they only have plastic cups. Do you mind? I'll have some proper glasses brought up as soon as possible. I don't understand why there are only plastic cups in here. I don't know if you can tell, but you're in the Royal Suite, built for the Brunei royals. We had it specially arranged for you. But dear me, they need proper cups.”
“I don't care,” Su Yi said impatiently.
Felicity poured some water into the cup and brought it over to her mother. She held the cup up to her mother's lips and began to tilt it forward, noticing that her hands were beginning to shake. “Oh, silly me, we need a straw. We wouldn't want to spill any of this on you.”
Su Yi let out a sigh. Even in her delirious state, Su Yi noticed that her eldest daughter always brought along a certain frenetic energy. She was so eager to please, but in a cloying, obsequious way that Su Yi found so irritating. She had been like this even as a child. Where did she get it from?
Felicity found a cluster of straws on the side table and hastily jabbed one into the cup. “Here, that's much better.” As she placed the straw up to her mother's lips, she glanced at the heart monitor and saw the numbers slowly begin to rise: 95â¦105â¦110. She knew she was agitating her mother, and her hands started shaking again. A few drops of water splashed onto her mother's chin.
“Hold still!” Su Yi hissed.
Felicity grasped the cup tightly, suddenly feeling like she was ten years old again, perched on the ottoman in her mother's bedroom as one of the Thai maids arranged her hair into an intricate braid. She would shift a little, and her mother would groan in annoyance. “Hold still! Siri is doing very delicate work here, and if you make one false move, you're going to mess it all up! Do you want to be the only girl at Countess Mountbatten's tea party with bad hair? Everyone will be looking at you because you're my daughter. Do you want to disgrace me by looking unkempt?”
Felicity could feel the veins in her neck beginning to throb at the memory. Where were her blood-pressure pills? She couldn't deal with Mummy like this. She hated even seeing her like this, dressed in a hospital gown with her hair out of place. Mummy must never look unkempt. Now that she was conscious, they must send over some of her own clothes and have Simon set her hair properly. And some jewelry. Where was the jade amulet she always wore against her chest? She stared at the heart monitor anxiously: 112â¦115â¦120. Oh dear oh dear. She didn't want to be responsible for causing another heart attack. She needed to leave the room now.
“You know, Astrid's been dying to see you,” Felicity blurted out, appalled at her own choice of words. She pulled the cup away from her mother and fled out the door.
A few moments later, Astrid entered, the bright light from the doorway silhouetting her, and making her glow like an angel. Su Yi smiled at her. Her favorite granddaughter always looked so calm and collected, no matter the occasion. Today she was wearing a pale lilac dress with a low-waisted sash and delicate knife pleats all along the skirt. Her long hair was gathered into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and the delicate locks on the side framed her face like Botticelli's Venus.
, how wonderful you look!” Su Yi said in Cantonese, the dialect she preferred to use with most of her grandchildren.
“Don't you recognize the dress? It's one of your Poirets, from the 1920s,” Astrid said, sitting in the chair beside her bed and taking her hand.
“Ah yes, of course. It was my mother's actually. I thought it was terribly old-fashioned by the time she gave it to me, but it looks perfect on you.”
“I wish I could have met great-grandma.”
“You would have appreciated her. She was very beautiful, like you. She always told me that it was unfortunate that I took after my father.”
“Oh but Ah Ma, you're so beautiful! Weren't you the leading debutante of your day?”
“I wasn't ugly, but I didn't come close to my mother in looks. My older brother looked more like her.” Su Yi sighed for a moment. “If only you could have met him.”
“I always called him by his Chinese name, Ah Jit. He was so strikingly handsome and so kind.”
“You've always said that.”
“He died much too young.”
“Cholera, wasn't it?”
Su Yi paused for a moment, before saying, “Yes, there was an epidemic in Batavia, where father had sent him to manage our businesses. You know, things would have been so different for all of us had he lived.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wouldn't have behaved like Alfred, for one thing.”
Astrid wasn't sure what her grandmother meant, but she didn't wish to upset her by prodding any further. “Great-uncle Alfred is coming home, you know? He's due in on Thursday. Auntie Cat and Auntie Alix are on their way as well.”
“Why is everyone coming down? Do they think I'm dying?”
“Oh, no, no. Everyone just wants to see you.” Astrid laughed lightly.
“Hmm. Well, if that's the case, I want to be at home. Please tell Francis that I want to go home today.”
“I don't think you can go home just yet, Ah Ma. You need to get a bit better first.”
“Nonsense! Where is Francis now?”
Astrid pushed the button beside the bed, and within a few moments Francis Oon arrived in the room accompanied by his usual entourage of nurses. “Is everything okay?” he asked, looking a bit flustered. He always got flustered around her. Astrid noticed a spot of chili sauce at the edge of his mouth and tried to ignore it. She addressed him in English. “My grandmother wishes to be discharged.”
Professor Oon leaned toward his patient and spoke in Hokkien. “Mrs. Young, we can't allow you to go home just yet. You need to get stronger first.”
“I feel fine.”
“Well, we want you to feel
before we release youâ”
Astrid cut in. “Professor Oon, I think my grandmother would be so much more comfortable at home. Can't we just have things set up for her at Tyersall Park?”
“Er, it's not that simple. Step outside with me for a moment, will you?” the doctor said a little uneasily. Astrid followed him out of the room, slightly annoyed by the ungracious way he had handled that. Now of course her grandmother would know they were discussing her condition.