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Sunday, Mar. 13, 2005 - 5:57 p.m.

The French teacher decides that the inscription on the third page of her book will read, "This book is dedicated to the memory of my husband, an inspired teacher of Russian, who died five years earlier. You came into my life, and then you left." They were both in the languages department at l'Universite Aix Marseille when they first met, and she was still teaching there when he suddenly died of a heart attack after twenty years of marriage. She had finished writing the beginner's textbook in French a few months back, but had told the Singaporean publisher that she was still thinking of the inscription.

Five years ago, she had come to Singapore after his death, and has been teaching at the Ministry of Education's Language Centre ever since. And like everyone else who tried to escape a memory by escaping to a different geography, she realized on her arrival that she could not. This was despite the unfamiliarity of the new country and the strangeness of its customs. When the MOELC was still at Newton she would always have lunch at its famous hawker centre, the smoke from the barbequed stingrays permeating her clothing and hair for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes, she would glance at the face of a man sitting at the next table - he could be Chinese, Malay or Indian, and in that single vignette see the most fleeting remnant of her husband in that stranger's face. It was never a complete imprint of his visage, but some trace that evoked him - a similar proportion of cheek bones, a familiarity in the angularity of a nose, or the pattern of shadows across the face. She would look again and it would be gone.

Her students never troubled her, though she is still puzzled to this day how they can master a subject they had no deep interest for so competently. She taught them new words and carefully read the essays that they wrote, which often described the Singapore landscape. As she read them, she realized that this could be the first time that Parliament House or Geylang Serai, were ever discussed in French. That was the idea that made her write the French textbook - it would empower the people in Singapore to talk about something for the first time in a new language. They would fill the air with French sounding verbs and phrases, and continue all the conversations that she will never have with her husband. She has only silent memories of him and they do not speak back. Even the remembered conversations about prosaic things, like what time the train would leave, would she like to have lunch, were fading away in volume with each passing day.

She imagines that after her book is published, a man and a woman might walk along the Singapore river one afternoon, and stop at the statue of the Merlion. The woman will say, what an ugly fish. And then the man will reply in French, and remark as her late husband would, on how the electrically pumped water gushing from its concrete lips is so artificial, yet at the same time - eternal.


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