Lim Bee Geok was her name—one she no longer used, had no need for. Here, she tried her best to be invisible, to blend in with the ever-flowing sea of people. It had taken some effort at the start, but now, one year, five months and four days in, she had learned the ways of becoming an inconspicuous wave. It wasn’t deception, for no one could deny that she was, after all, a traveller on this voyage of life.
When Bee Geok first arrived at this place, she had no plan. Carrying a black canvas bag on one shoulder, she walked down the gleaming halls, past the flora and fauna, through the teeming crowds. She found it odd that it was the first place to have come to mind, for it was neither a place she frequented nor one of which she held particularly fond memories. Yet it was a place that felt timeless—ever bustling, ever alive. Dazed, Bee Geok walked on and on, round and round. She might not even have realised that it was evening had her stomach not let out a growl, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten all day.
Bee Geok looked up to see an aged man with a damp rag in his hand, about to clear her tray. Glancing at the red gravy rimming the bowl, she nodded to him, although there were still two, perhaps even three, mouthfuls of mee siam to be had if she were to forage for it. Bee Geok fished her phone out of her bag and held her breath as she turned it on. Five full minutes she waited to be sure. But her phone screen remained placid. No missed calls. No text messages. Something in her twisted, hardened. Swallowing, she rose to her feet and began to walk.
It was only when Bee Geok chanced upon the young couple with dirty blonde hair and ripped jeans huddled together in a quiet corner of Terminal 3 that the idea struck her. Her footsteps paused as she stared at them. They were lying on a thin mat with matching brown caps covering their faces, their oversized backpacks substituting for pillows. Two pairs of sandals rested near their bare feet. Bee Geok looked down at her own. At least they were clad. And her pants had no holes. For the first time in weeks, she allowed a smile to tug at the ends of her lips.
Shifting the strap of her canvas bag from one shoulder to the other, Bee Geok walked to a row of empty chairs and sat herself down. She glanced once more at the sleeping couple in the corner. The man let out a snore before turning to his side, the brown cap falling off to reveal a chiselled, tanned face. Bee Geok looked around, wondering if anyone else had noticed. No one.
Just one night, she told herself as she zipped up her jacket. Clutching her bag to her chest, she squeezed her eyes shut.
One night became two, and two became three. Three nights stretched into weeks and weeks into months. Bee Geok spent most of her hours in the viewing galleries, surrounded by young couples and families. She liked watching the planes take off and land, imagining the infinite journeys that lay before them. It didn’t matter how many times she had observed the process. Each time, she would marvel at how the air—the seeming nothingness—could so effortlessly carry such immense weight.
At the age of sixty-eight, she had never taken an airplane; never travelled overseas beyond crossing the straits to Johor Bahru for the occasional family trip. Still, like everyone else, she was keenly aware that her country was home to the world’s best airport. An award-winning airport which offered electricity, air-conditioning, toilets, and drinking water at no charge. An award-winning airport that offered refuge to travellers as they waited to embark on the next phase of their journeys, however long it might take.
When Pui Ee first came to see her, it didn’t escape her how her daughter’s eyes had widened in disbelief, how her chapped lips had stretched in mild distaste. At the beginning, Pui Ee made a few feeble attempts to persuade her to return home. But each time, she would simply shake her head. She didn’t tell her daughter that she no longer had a home. Had Pui Ee married better, had she lived in a bigger flat, had she had the resources or the capacity, she might have asked her mother to move in with her. But Pui Ee was still working the same job she had taken at McDonald’s when she dropped out of school, earning barely enough to support her four children and good-for-nothing husband, who had been unemployed for over a year.
Over time, the frequency of Pui Ee’s visits dwindled. It was no surprise to Bee Geok, for there was barely anything to talk about whenever they met beyond the standard lines of greeting and exchange that they always fell back on. What did surprise her was her daughter’s continued—albeit sporadic—visits and the handful of red banknotes she would sometimes slip into her palm. Each time she held the notes in her hands, she would think that perhaps, in raising her offspring, there was something she had done right.
She dipped her fingers into the purse, feeling the edges to check if there might be an octagonal coin lodged between its folds. Nothing. She glanced at the two-dollar note crumpled in her hand, wondering how long she could make it last. Three months had passed since Pui Ee last contacted her, two days since she had last eaten. Furrowing her brows, she carefully tucked the note back into her purse.
She smoothed out the wrinkles in her lap, picked up her bag and began to walk. After years of observation, she had perfected the casual yet purposeful gait of the quintessential traveller. She pulled back her shoulders as her eyes swept across the sleek business travellers in their impeccably pressed suits, the families going on holiday in their bright, matching T-shirts, the pretty air stewardesses in their form-fitting kebayas complete with perfectly coiffed hair. She lifted her chin slightly, reminding herself to appear as if she, like them, had a right to this place.
Without a destination in mind, she made her way past the brightly-lit shops with their sparkling wares on display, past the row of restaurants from which painful smells of food wafted out. Her stomach constricted, and her eyes glazed over. She walked on, merging into the flowing crowd.
It was only when she felt a light spray on her cheeks that she realised she had arrived at Jewel. Before her was an enormous indoor waterfall—the world’s largest, she overheard a woman in front of her saying. She looked up at the tower of falling water, illuminated by blue light. The complex had opened a few months ago, and it seemed that everyone in the country wanted to see it for themselves. The evening sky peered through the domed glass roof. For a few moments, she stood, invisible, amid the crowd. All around them were trees and plants, a terraced garden affording cover.
She climbed the stairs and found a vacant, dimly-lit bench at the back. There she sat, watching the swarms of visitors taking photographs, striking poses, licking globes of ice cream. The falling water and surrounding greenery filled her nostrils with a dewy freshness. She took a few whiffs, though she was quite certain that she didn’t smell, for earlier that morning, she had cleaned under her arms and between the folds of her neck with damp toilet paper. The top she was wearing still carried the faint smell of hand soap.
After one year, five months and four days of living in this place, she had learnt how to maintain a neat appearance, how not to stand out like the others. Unlike them, she didn’t carry all her belongings around in faded plastic bags, didn’t appear as though she hadn’t bathed in days. She took care not to keep going to the toilets in the same area, alternating from one terminal to another, and only washed at most two garments each time, so that if someone were to eye her with suspicion, she could claim to have stained her clothing while eating. While she would admit that she, not unlike them, was constantly famished, it was not an altogether unfamiliar sensation. In fact, she carried that hunger with a tinge of pride. She might have had her dignity and possessions stolen from her, but at least she was now living on her own terms.
She sat for a long time in the shadows.
Around her, the waves of people ebbed and flowed.
She was about to doze off when a flicker of recognition startled her awake. He was standing mere metres away from her, at the waterfall’s edge. She narrowed her eyes, uncertain if it was really him she had seen. The light was shifting, shadowy, adding unfamiliar angles to his face. But she soon recognised the ease with which he moved his limbs, the assured set of his jaw, the glimmer in his eyes whenever he got what he wanted. He was now placing one arm tenderly around a woman’s bare shoulders. She stiffened as the woman turned, her face coming into the violet light. Almost at once, she recognised with a chill the very woman who had turned her life upside down.
She hadn’t seen either of them in over a year. He hadn’t reached out to her, nor she, him. Gripped by a sudden desperation, she remained frozen in her seat, hoping that by keeping perfectly still, she could somehow be camouflaged, somehow blend into the semi-darkness, into the dense foliage surrounding her.
But as if he had read her thoughts, he turned around just then, his gaze shifting towards her. For a moment, their eyes met. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her head felt light. In her mind, she imagined him walking up to her, the myriad possibilities that could unfold from their encounter. Perhaps, it was destiny that had finally led them to their reunion, she thought.
Yet what happened next was beyond her wildest imagination.
With blank eyes, he looked away.
Stricken with shame, she watched as the woman with the dark brown hair and too tight dress whispered something in his ear. She watched as his eyes crinkled in a smile. She watched as they exchanged a kiss, their affection so palpable it hurt her to breathe. She watched as they sauntered around the perimeter of the waterfall, hand in hand, talking and laughing in a way he had never done in her presence. Long after they had left, she continued to watch their nebulous silhouettes against the falling light.
She was curled up in a quiet corner of Terminal 2 when the two young women approached her. Her first instinct was to sit up, gather her things and leave. But she soon realised that they were not enforcement officers, that she wouldn’t be asked to go away. Instead, they gently asked if she had been about to sleep or if she might be open to answering some questions for some study they were doing.
“No, no,” she said, getting to her feet. “Auntie going home already.”
Despite her reluctance to engage with them, they continued to speak to her with a kindness she hadn’t received in years. She paused to take a closer look at them. Both women appeared to be in their early twenties. One of them was wearing thick, black-framed spectacles, with round, earnest eyes that reminded her of Pui Ee’s, back when she was still a child. She felt her resolve falter but reminded herself of the unnecessary attention she might draw by taking part in such surveys. She was also not in the best of moods, her mind unable to cast off the blankness she had glimpsed in the eyes of the man earlier that evening.
But they were offering her cash as a token of appreciation if she agreed to be interviewed. Five whole dollars. Her stomach rumbled.
The young woman with eyes like her daughter’s began with a smile and the easy questions. Age: seventy-three. Nationality: Singaporean. Marital status: married, though only in name. Highest level of education: primary school.
Then the questions got harder, more private. How long had she been sleeping here, the young woman asked. She hesitated for a moment, then told them the truth. Despite the chill from the air-conditioning, she felt a heat spread across her cheeks. But if either of the women had felt surprise or shock at her answer, their expressions betrayed no trace of it.
Did she have any family, the woman asked further. The scene of the man with the blank eyes turning away from her flashed before her eyes, causing her to flinch. She clasped her hands together in her lap. Should she tell them about this son of hers, whom she had to birth six daughters—including one stillborn—to conceive? This coveted son, so desired by her husband and in-laws, for whom she had sacrificed everything. She lost count of the number of times she had placed the only roasted chicken drumstick in his bowl while her five daughters watched in silence, having long learnt that it was better to simply swallow the injustice than to argue. She lost count of the number of times she had given the boy her hard-earned savings to buy an item of his fancy or to go on an excursion while her daughters, denied of those luxuries, glared sidelong at her with muted resentment. She had known that the repercussions of her actions would circle back to her one day, that everything her son got to enjoy at the expense of his sisters would someday return to bite her where it hurt the most. But what choice had she had? She had become a mother when she herself was still a child. She had become a mother of seven without having even planned for one. She had become a caged housewife despite her dreams of becoming an air stewardess. Her husband had been a sluggish taxi driver, earning an income that could barely feed them all. Back then, as she lay on the mattress beside him each night, she had told herself that it would all be worth it in the end. All the other families around and before them had made it work, so why shouldn’t they be able to do the same?
The bespectacled young woman cleared her throat, a notepad and pen waiting in her hands. She glimpsed the name of the university printed on the plastic body of the pen. She had once received one like it on the day of her son’s graduation ceremony. Over a decade had passed since then, but the details remained vivid in her mind. The pride in her husband’s eyes, the praise he had lavished on the boy, proclaiming him to be the most capable child of the entire family, the only one smart enough to obtain a university degree. The pride in her son’s eyes, the eagerness with which he lapped up his father’s words, believing that he was indeed better, smarter, worthier than all his siblings combined. That afternoon, as she watched her son prance up the stage to receive his scroll, she felt as if she were the only one in the packed auditorium privy to the truth.
She glanced up at the young woman with eyes like her daughter’s, who was patiently waiting to find out if she had any family.
“Seven children,” she finally said.
“Do they know you’re here?” the young woman asked gently.
“Pui Ee,” she said, “my eldest daughter.”
She didn’t mention the rest of her daughters, who had progressively left home once they had reached the age at which they could fend for themselves. She no longer had any contact with them, for they had all been determined to cut her off from their lives. She didn’t blame them. She also omitted to mention her only son, who was no longer living in Singapore.
The young woman spoke softly, wanting to know why she was sleeping there.
This time, she paused for a long while—unsure how much to reveal, unsure where to even begin. Should she tell them about the day her son had brought home a green-eyed girlfriend, about the meal for which she had spent days preparing, on which two weeks’ worth of grocery money had been splurged, for her husband had insisted that they couldn’t let their only son lose face? Should she tell them about how that brown-haired woman had wrinkled her thin, pointed nose at the sight of her son’s favourite dishes and had taken two mouthfuls of food throughout the entire dinner? Should she tell them about how her son had hardly touched his chopsticks, preferring instead to caress the bare neck of the curvy brunette, whom he announced, at the end of the meal, he was going to make his wife? Should she tell them about how they had relocated to America just a month later, how she hadn’t seen them again, not until today?
Or perhaps, she should begin later—tell them about how, a week after their son’s departure, her husband had brought his middle-aged mistress back to the empty flat that was no longer overcrowded with children. How that brazen woman had treated the place as her rightful home and her as their maid. How, in the end, it wasn’t the empty box from which the only piece of jewellery she owned was missing but the stained, scarlet thong lying on the dining table that had led her to pack her belongings in a black canvas bag and forever leave a life of waiting on others.
The tender voice of the young woman roused her from her thoughts. “Could you tell us why you’re sleeping here?” she repeated.
On hearing those words, Lim Bee Geok found herself unable to keep from smiling. She gazed at the stranger, felt the warmth in her eyes.
“Because,” Bee Geok finally said, “this is my home.”
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