Singapore, lockdown 2020
You’ve become fatter, slower, dull. You’ve really got to get back into doing a couple of circuits of the hillside walk that you used to do. Round and round, steady as she goes. It’s not even any distance away. It’s practically outside the front door of your apartment block. And it’s not as if it is your fault, this ballooning creature that is you. Blame it on the Covid “circuit breaker” lockdown of Singapore, where you live. The government doesn’t want to alarm people by straight-out saying it’s a lockdown. A circuit breaker is safer, it sounds like an electrical problem that will be no effort to solve. All that is required is a man who knows what the colours on the cables mean, and where the switches are located. However, irreverent locals immediately dubbed it ‘‘CB’’, relishing the inadvertent Hokkien profanity for female private parts.
As soon as Singapore’s don’t-mention-the-word-lockdown began, it triggered this hunker-down mentality in you, as if the curse of CB was a menopausal-like shutting off of energy and the drive for connection. Your decline began when you ceased wanting to move, opening up the possibility that you might start to dwell on things. (You musn’t, you know that.) You completely stopped all the outdoor fitness stuff you used to love. You usually take a morning walk, but with CB, you couldn’t face it. At first, unaware of the curse of CB, you thought you could simply exercise at home. The first few days, you rolled out your exercise mat, gathered the 1kg hand weights, propped up the iPad and clicked YouTube to play the ambitiously titled 20 Min Full Body Workout. But on Day Three, you just thought, “Nah, can’t be bothered.”
You’ve tried to console yourself that even if you did go out walking, wearing a mask would make it too unpleasant. Your glasses fog up. You wouldn’t be able to see. But weeks on, you realise you’ve let things slide too far. You don’t like this person CB is turning you into, someone content to be caged, living an inward-looking, condensed little life, private and detached from the outside world. You must do something, get out of the containment of the house, fight the seduction of solitude, the torpor it induces.
On with the walking shoes, and you are out of the home. Masked. No foggy specs yet, though already the mask feels annoyingly itchy. You shut the front door quietly as your husband is still asleep after nightshift. Classified as an essential worker, he is one of the few who still go into the office. You hardly see him.
It’s strange to view the front door from the other side. You hate to turn your back on the sanctuary within. But you force yourself onward. At the top of the exterior steps, you see someone getting into a car, a woman in a business suit. You’ve only seen them around once or twice, but part of you wants to run up and hug this masked stranger (surgical grade), to experience a physical connection. Are you going mad? What would she think? She smiles, waves. That’s nice. You wave back. Another strange feeling. Mutual unplanned real-time mask-to-mask human contact. Though from a distance.
You adjust your mask higher on your face, closer to your glasses, and head to the tennis courts and a jungle patch that has a winding uphill path through it. It’s starting to look like Life After People. Untended grass pokes through the wire netting of the courts. On the path, you have to push back encroaching branches of trees. You have the place all to your human self, it’s just you, the trees, and the birds. How stimulating to see birds close up, flitting about in flashes of colour, or in confident groups like the white-crested thrushes, little feathered dinosaurs foraging amongst the long grass. You get to the top of the hill path, and start descending the other side, to another part of the sprawling apartment complex. On the first steep step down from the hill, hidden from the walk upward, you are surprised to encounter someone sitting there. She’s familiar: Amy, a Filipina domestic helper (or maid, as the locals say), a nodding acquaintance. Usually – well, in pre-Covid days – Amy would hang out at the big park down the road with the other migrant workers from her home country, talking in Tagalog while supervising their employers’ children at play. At the sight of this person you sort of know, it’s all you can do to stop bounding up, grabbing her shoulders and saying, Hi, Amy. You contain yourself, assume nonchalance, and wonder about government rules about safe distancing. How far is a metre? It seems silly to observe this, when there’s no one else around but you two. But it only takes a single contact to spread Covid, they say.
You both exchange guarded greetings muffled by masks. Amy’s is standard single-use white-green, you are in washable black cotton. There’s a wooden bench seat in an alcove next to you, but it is cordoned off from human contact with red-and-white tape, as if it were a crime scene. So you plonk yourself on a step above Amy, maybe a metre away, you can’t really tell. But far away enough to have an obvious gap between you. It’s awkward, it seems anti-social, almost rude, but you have to be careful, yeah? Both of you look at each other, spontaneously lower your masks and pretend not to notice the forbidden exposure that could incur a fine if detected. Then you both smile, a fully encompassing eyes and mouth smile.
Even before the circuit breaker, you’d never encountered Amy at that spot before, sitting like this in a dreamy way, looking out over the trees, taking a break from the household chores that she is paid to do. Good on her, today. But why this spot? It’s your own, you like to think. It overlooks where your daughter Victoria died six years ago, among the carpark lots. Sitting here on these concrete steps, you look directly across to where she chose to leave this world.
Amy herself had known Victoria, you recall, as she had been friends with Erlinda, the domestic helper you employed at the time to keep the home running while you were away at work. Was Amy thinking of your late daughter? It would explain the dreaminess and the choice of where she has stopped to sit. Did she want to be alone with her thoughts? (You do not want to be alone with yours.) But she sighs, starts talking fast to you, as if things are bottled up, and that she is grateful that you have come along, someone to make human contact with. You nod encouragingly, enjoying the freedom of seeing an unmasked face outdoors, open to where the conversation might go.
She explains that that the family she works for have moved to this apartment complex, from another nearby. They have taken an apartment in the very building you both can see now. You dare not say to her, near where Victoria died. You don’t want to mention unpleasant things that might disturb Amy or tarnish her move into the new home.
But Amy is gushing that “Oh, ma’am, the view over the greenery is fantastic, so high up,” and that there is a bedroom at the front, facing the trees, it is lovely, and airy, and large. She pauses, looks at you, and you realise that you’ve not seen her fully for the complicated human being that she is. She is more than someone you happen to know by sight, a friend of Erlinda’s before she moved back to the Philippines. In a steadier, lower tone, Amy says that at first she was worried about living there. Every day she sees the place where Victoria died. She is upset. She has bad dreams. Amy puts her hand over her heart, and you tear up at how she shares your grief, and you put your hand over your heart, too. Both of you sit there, separately, like that. Amy tells you how it is a pain in the heart, that of the heart being torn, this loss of a person.
But now, she says, putting her hand down, speaking brightly, they have been there at this apartment for a while, she feels different, not so sad. She feels that Victoria is at peace now, and it is easy to be there living in that apartment. Amy says she thinks of happy times, of picking flowers there. She points to the barbecue pits and park benches directly below us, garishly covered in X marks and more red-and-white tape to indicate the Covid requirement for staying away from each other. Until Amy indicated the barbecue area, and you hadn’t even noticed you were so close to it. You remember now: When you first saw Amy, she had been looking down, and so it must have been at these very pits and benches. “That is where we would come,” she tells you, and you say, “I didn’t know Victoria knew you that well.”
“Oh yes,” says Amy. “That table on the left there, see? That is where we all would sit. Me, Erlinda, Tess, Matilda, and others and other children with Victoria. When the mothers are away at work or out shopping, we bring the children in our care. Victoria never tell you? We have picnics, cook corn, hot dogs, sometimes prawns, on the barbecue grill. Victoria loved that, she liked eating the roasted corn and the hot dogs. She would tend to them on the grill, turn them. It was happy times. We came here a lot.”
Two women stare at past innocence, imagining laughter, smoke from the grill, a child waving a strand of pink-bloomed bougainvillea with one hand, while with the other turning a skewer of roasting corn. You reach out, as Amy reaches out to you, across the distance.
A version of this was first published in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
Loss Adjustment is available for pre-order from Awa Press, here
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Linda Collins is the author of Loss Adjustment, about the death by suicide of her daughter Victoria McLeod. It is out with Awa Press next month. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.