Saturday, Aug. 13, 2005 - 4:19 p.m.
The man and the woman are young, and each contains twenty-five years worth of remembered things.
In Primary Three, they sat next to each other at wooden desks, which were vandalized for years by bored children; the desks now rest under the soil as ash, in the landfill at Pulau Semaun. A tree, a desk, a layer of vandalized ash. The social studies teacher in primary school had drawn a horizontal line across the blackboard, and had insisted that the history of Singapore, Temasek, Sang Nila Utama, abandoned pirate outpost, the Temenggong, Raffles, the outwitting of the Dutch, had all occurred horizontally. Was the past a horizontal timeline or a vertical stack of history, layers upon layers of memory? Years later, on a geology field trip to a Mayan excavation site, the man was shown a bore of soil, freshly dug up from an abandoned village. Look, his professor said excitedly as he pointed to the different layers of soil: a drought, a famine, two years of record rainfall.
Rotate the timeline by ninety degrees and the past becomes vertical. Seventeen years ago, they first met in a classroom on the second floor of the school as a little boy and a little girl. Now they stand next to each other seven hundred metres above sea level, with the reflections of their adult bodies in the glass, equally suspended at this altitude. He touches the cold glass with a finger, joining the image of himself. And when she looks away for an instance, he touches her reflection in the glass as well.
How did they end up seated next to each other seventeen years ago? Was it the order of the class register or the chaotic, random selection of places by eight-year old children? He cannot remember what they talked about then, or if they talked at all, but he recalls something else and smiles.
What is it, she asks.
He shakes his head and then she continues looking out at the city lights.
She does not know, but he had copied her answers once during a Chinese test. He will never tell her about that. Suddenly, here on the 89th floor, he realizes that his answers, the three pages of rough yellow paper, were a copy of her thoughts. Where are all those thought-filled papers now? Burnt, thrown away, or sold to the karung guni man? The one who drove around his neighbourhood had a beat-up blue Nissan pickup and would signal his presence with four quick blasts of a hand-held horn. Strange, that someone should be driving around Singapore in a blue pick-up, with a part of his past (or a copy of her thoughts) in the back, inserted between the pages of old newspapers.
Seventeen years ago in Singapore, rain fell for a week over the Bukit Timah area. It was a week of record rainfall that caused the Bukit Timah canal to overflow and many houses in that low-lying area to be flooded. He remembers that he had arrived in school with wet socks and shoes that squeaked with every step that he took. Next to him in the classroom, she had laid out her books on the table to dry. With the push of air from the ceiling fans, a single page of an open book on her table had wavered and threatened to turn, but did not.
There used to be a line of pre-war shophouses nearby school, just next to Coronation Plaza - two groceries, a butchery, a hardware store, and a shop that was never open. The line of shophouses had dirty white walls with a long green creeper plant that grew up along a corner pillar to the second storey. Today, a small, gleaming white shopping centre stands over the site.
The man remembers going into one of the groceries with his mother during that week of rain. It was the first time that the grey cement floor inside the shop was slippery and wet. There was the usual smell of dried fish, the bright greenness of vegetables, and the temptation in the row of golden biscuit tins, each with a transparent window cut into its front. The shop owner, an old man, was at the back of the shop duplicating a key over the whine and whirr of the key-cutting machine. The only light in the gloomy interior was the yellow, incandescent lamp from the key-cutting machine, a light which reflected and hung onto the owner's face. His wife was at the front of the shop, complaining about something, bent over and sweeping water out the front entrance with a short rattan broom that made a harsh shhhk when it scratched the concrete.
And so the thin, shiny film of water was slowly pushed out of the grocery shop, reaching the perpendicular concrete edge at the shop entrance, and then falling in a tiny, three-centimetre waterfall to the pavement. From there, the water followed the gradient, searching for lower and lower ground, and it emptied first into small drains by the roadside, then into larger storm-water drains, and finally into the rushing sea contained in Bukit Timah canal.
The man looked out through the glass but the sky was black, and he could not see any clouds. Here on the 89th, he only needed to look out, and not up. He was looking for that cloud from 1987, the one that had dropped so much rain over Bukit Timah. But that cloud had turned into rainwater seventeen years ago, flowed out to sea, evaporated and had formed a new cloud. It was unlikely that the new cloud could recall its past through the chaos of its continual, cyclical construction. So perhaps history occurs in circles as well. The past, like the future, is constantly happening.
When he looked at her again, he saw that her head was turned at exactly the same angle as on that wet day in primary three. He had been seated next to her, watching her dry and smooth out the pages of her books. Her hair was wet and there was a single drop of water hanging from the tip of her chin. It was glistening, wet and crystal. It had fallen from the sky, gotten caught in her hair, and had then slid down her face. He remembers that he wanted to reach out and touch it, not because he liked her, but just because it was there. But she had moved her head slightly, and the drop of water detached itself from her chin to continue its vertical journey, falling, falling, like a raindrop.
They talked about work, her new boyfriend, and the time they had spent in school together. How could they have known that they would end up here, in this country, in this space, at this great height, seventeen years ago? When she paused for a moment, he reached out his hand towards her face. She was startled, as he touched the imaginary raindrop on her chin, wetting his fingers with the memory of the water.