Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2015 - 12:16 p.m.
"Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody has ever come back. The Muslims say that there are seventy houris, beautiful women up there. But nobody has come back to confirm this."
His children sobbed around the bed. The ventilator kept beeping, pushing air uselessly down its ribbed tubes. But if they could see him, they would see the flickering monochrome image of a vigorous thirty-five year old man, who seemed to have climbed out of a television set from the 1960s. Most people in the country have never met the ex-prime minister, and he exists in their minds only as a black and white man, constructed from a a television image. While his body was wheeled out of the ward in a long beige box, a doctor sits at a desk in the corner of the ICU looking at the empty death certificate before him, and lets out a sigh. Someone makes a phone call to Singapore’s best embalmer, waking her up from a sleep where she dreamt she was embalming the body of a prime minister.
The flickering black and white man watched as she cradled the body's head onto a wooden block for support. The rest of the body lay exposed on a metal table, bathed in acerbic white fluorescent light. He dissolved into a brief burst of zig-zag static when she pushed a metal cannula into the body’s right carotid artery, and blood flowed out onto the metal table as a cold magenta pool.
Her fingers pressed against the body’s facial muscles, which held the political history of a televised tear being shed in 1965 at the country's unwanted independence. The muscles also bore the years across the public rallies when the eyebrows were arched in various looks of determination, or calculated derision, as the crowd shouted back cheers of 'Merdeka!'. But that single tear, formed from the ultra-filtrate of a bitter cup of tea he had drunk earlier, coalesced in his right tear duct, before following the smooth, secret, tubular darkness out into the bright infinity of the studio lights. That single tear was eternal—it was held in the memory of anyone who watched its repeatedly televised falling.
As she forced the stiff muscles into an expression of serenity, the embalmer wondered how these same muscles appeared, during his 1947 secret marriage at Stratford-Upon Avon. The man flickers, and remembers the look on his new wife’s face that day, as he put the platinum ring from Regent street on her finger, but not his own.
The invisible black and white man sits in the grey, glass-walled Mercedes Benz hearse that bears his coffin in the back, as it makes the turn into the main gates of the Istana. People had lined the streets, watching his final home-coming, and called out his name. The guards saluted one last time, holding the salute long after the hearse had passed. He looked out at the boughs of rain-trees that covered the hearse with its green-dappled shadows.
The Istana used to be a nutmeg plantation and was built by Indian labourers from Sulawesi, but the scent of nutmeg had long gone. The hearse passed a spot near the main Istana building, next to the trunk of a massive rain-tree, where a Gurkha once stood. The same Gurkha had stood there every night for twenty years, fingering his pistol. He watched the light in the second floor office of the prime minister's office burn at 2am, as the prime minister composed and rehearsed his speeches at the window, to an audience of rain-trees.
The rain does not wet him, as it does the crowd who stand at the Padang waiting for the funeral cortege to pass. He looks up at the rain. An unusually fierce thunder-storm had broken out over Singapore on the night he passed away in the intensive care unit, but he was not one for symbolism. White-uniformed men, soaked by the rain knelt next to their howitzers. An officer drops his out-stretched hand and a piece of artillery fires, lurching back in the mud. He had given so many speeches here at the Padang before, but now the crowd was silent. The roar of jets passed overhead, but they were obscured by rain clouds. He shook his head at the stupid waste of money, and hoped his children would remember to demolish his house.
The last thing he wanted was for his childhood house, to be turned into the altar of a political deity. He headed from the Padang and walked slowly down Coleman street, between the old City Hall and St. Andrew's cathedral. He did not feel tired, though he could sense the white hum of the electrical cables buried under the road keenly. Then he continued up Fort Canning hill where he paused at the top to look at the vista of new office buildings whose names he did not even know. He rested his hands on a wooden balustrade as the city rose in front of him. The news said that people in Tamil Nadu were mourning his death. A pair of sparrows sought shelter in the teak tree over his head, flitting from branch to branch, while more thunderclouds rolled in from the sea.
He had decided not to attend his own funeral. So as his younger son began the last eulogy at the University Cultural Centre, he climbs the slight incline into his house at Oxley rise. He enters past the open front door into the small, empty house, with its old rattan chairs and familiar, worn wooden tables. He walks into a room with an empty hospital bed and sits in the wooden chair beside it. Had he expected to find her here? A black, metal music stand still holds the two books he used to read to his bed-ridden wife. He had sat there every night since her stroke. He was not a reader of fiction but she was. Every night, he began by reading her the day's newspapers, and then he would choose between one book or the other. One was an anthology of poems, where she had marked out her favourite verses. Tonight, he takes the other book and opens Through the Looking Glass across his lap:
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die: