MY GRANDMOTHER’S BRIEF INVENTORY OF UNNATURAL DISASTERS IN SINGAPORE
By Cyril Wong
Of course, I remember my husband
as a young man – sleeked-back hair,
his taller frame, a voice like a wall –
that first date, holding hands
in the cinema, park, coffee-shop;
banalities of habit, milestones half-
chosen; rhythms of expectation
and disillusionment, carrying on
for a life. I remember the wedding –
a tight-fisted affair in some restaurant –
then affection free-falling like an elevator
in Hotel New World when it collapsed
in 1986. Nobody expected this to happen
in Singapore. Families were supposed
to be grateful and buildings erected
to rise forever. I clung on to the silences
when my husband wasn’t calling out
my stupidity; to my grandson’s face
after he’d been slapped by my sadness.
I clung on. The Hotel wasn’t designed
to carry its own weight. The heart isn’t built
to support this much disappointment
for long. Living has been a disaster
in slow motion. Anybody in a plunging lift
might tell you it takes forever to hit the ground.
In 1978, the year after my grandson was born,
a Greek tanker, Spyros, exploded at the Jurong shipyard,
killing workers. Others suffered burns, inhaled toxic fumes.
I picture the boat I came in on, my parents bringing me
from China to Singapore. I imagine the boat
sidling up alongside a different tanker, the tanker
exploding. We explode together. Countless immigrants
exploding, our aspirations tanking as one. A future
of sinking to the seabed, remains nibbled by fish;
locks of hair, chips of jewellery, charred fabric
circling the island, washing inland into canals, seeding
the Singapore River – how inexorable the call to become
part of a new nation, the magnetism of its modernity.
Pieces of ourselves, once-potential citizens – how patriotic.
A towed oil rig broke loose from its tug boats
and passed through the waterway under our only
cable car system in 1983, snapping the cables.
Seven died when two cabins dropped to the sea.
I watched this with my grandson on TV. For a moment,
the cars looked like two decapitated heads. Perhaps
they were our heads, tangled by wires of affection
or dependency. We were sinking with each other.
Our passengers – melancholy, regret, and time –
had died on impact. But what had my grandchild
to be sad about? A child like him was always hollow,
outside of time. I no longer wanted to see us as sinking.
I’d make sure he stayed in the air, suspended by his open
sense of nothing. Let me be the heavier, falling gondola.
I had died by this point. My grandchild was already
a young man in 1997. I read the news beside him
about SilkAir Flight 185. This didn’t happen in Singapore.
It couldn’t happen to a Singaporean plane. The airplane
dived faster than the speed of sound into a Sumatran river.
Every person disintegrated; no body parts were found.
Later in 2000, SQ006 burst into flames on a Taiwanese runway.
In 2004, Nicoll Highway will collapse (I’d already seen it),
killing four people. For all intents and purposes, we must
look like a real country now, my grandson thought –
I was listening in over his shoulder. Throw in another incident
like the MacDonald House Bombing the year the island
became independent, then we’re truly no longer young
and invincible; when we’ve grown afraid of losing everything.
My grandchild had lost me and yet, he also hadn’t –
how to convince him? Not a house of cards, but a diorama
in clouds, I whispered. He looked up from the papers,
but shook his head. A smile played on his lips. Perhaps
he was listening, after all. The clouds will always be there.
My Grandmother’s Ghost Listens to Indecent Obsession
I hear my grandson try to sing
after recording “Lady Rain” from the radio,
playing it over and over to get
the lyrics and the melody right.
He’s not great. He strains
to climb that octave to a word
about the weather and almost breaks,
the note falling softly on his face
like a ball he’s still unable to catch.
Having been deaf for so long,
I marvel at how clear the music
must sound to him. He tries and tries
before switching off the cassette deck
in a huff. I watch him pause
for a long time, before turning it
back on again. I sing the words
with him, Why did the sunshine
come and take you away? I’d wait
for you, my lady rain…
He smiles a little. He almost got it
this time. The song is about leaving
and he’s learning to sing
not just with the body but with feeling.
I wait for him to get the chorus exactly right.
About the Author:
Cyril Wong is a poet and fictionist in Singapore. His last book of poems was The Lover’s Inventory, published by Math Paper Press in 2015.