Friday, December 17, 2010


I pounded on the door, and suppressed the urge to call out my uncle’s name. It was late, almost 11.00 pm, and the last thing I wanted was to attract the attention of the neighbors.

Enough of a scene had already been caused, I felt.

“Uncle Mark!” I hissed. A thin swath of light spilled out from the crack beneath the doorway, and I was certain he was inside. A quick check of the shoe rack showed that his shoes were still neatly stacked side by side.

If my parents were right, he hadn’t left his house in over 4 weeks. He stubbornly refused to pick up any calls, and had only sent the occasional SMS to ask after us, telling us he was fine. Well, I didn’t think so.

I took a deep breath, and made ready to rap on the door again. Heck, so be it. If he didn’t care about the neighbors, why should I.

Surprisingly, the door swung open before my knuckles could make contact, and my fist came dangerously close to knocking on my uncle’s face instead.

I’d expected him to look gaunt, withdrawn, pale. The type of face you see on people who have spent too much time indoors mulling over unsolvable tangles or lost loves. In my head I’d already braced myself for his thick eyebags and unkempt beard.

I didn’t expect him to look… well, refreshed.

“Adam? You should have called, I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Hello Uncle Mark. Erm… may I come in?”

“Oh, oh yes of course!” He fumbled around in his pockets for the keys, and the solemn padlock yielded quite gracefully once the appropriate key was applied.

When he closed the door behind me and locked it, I let out a sigh of relief, and flopped down on the nearest sofa. It was a long ride here, and the worst-case scenarios fermenting in my imagination did become a bit too compelling towards the end.

“We were all worried about you. Dad said that you were trying to deal with things on your own, and that we should give you time...”

“Give me time? For what? I’m fine, don’t know why you all kept calling, in the first place.” He splayed out his hands towards me. “What’s there to worry about?”

“Yea, you actually look kinda ok…”

He laughed. “What, I don’t come visit for a few weeks and you all thought I was sick and dying here?”

I was starting to feel pretty silly for getting so worked-up. “I was in the area anyway, so you know, just dropped by.”

“You are worse than a mother hen, I tell you. Water?” I nodded, and he shuffled off to the adjoining kitchen.

“Did you eat out today?” I called out as I distractedly leafed through some old magazines he had left by the sofa. “Don’t just eat hawker food all the time, you know. You can come over to our place for home-cooked food anytime you want.”

“Nah, outside food’s not healthy. Besides, your aunt cooked today, so I came back for dinner with her. ”

I froze.

He came back out bearing three glasses, and set them on the coffee table. “You of all people shouldn’t lecture me about food. You’re getting pudgy yourself, if I may say so.”

I forced myself to look across the table and directly into his eyes. They were clear, lucid eyes.

“Uncle Mark…” The strength was fleeing from my voice, and I wondered if he would notice. “You said that… she cooked for you today? Dinner?”

A puzzled look began to settle on his face. “Er… yes?”

He didn’t sound like he was lying or pulling my leg. I could tell that both of us were thinking the exact same thing – what the heck is wrong with him?

“Uncle Mark, aunty couldn’t have cooked for you today. She’s…”

“What’s the big fuss about?” His tone took on an annoyed inflection.

“She’s not here anymore. She couldn’t have cooked for you.”

“Tell that to my stomach, who is positively sure that I have had my dinner. Look, you can ask her, she’s right next to you.” He vaguely gestured to the empty spot next to me.

At that moment I became acutely aware of three things.

One, that the altar we had helped install at the far side of the hall was no longer there. Gone was the incense burner, or tablet, or picture of my aunt taken when she was about 40. He liked that picture the most, he said, because it was a year or two before the cancer came, and it was the last time she had smiled so genuinely.

Two, that there was the faintest whiff of honeysuckle in the air. I’m no expert when it comes to perfumes. I can barely tell honeysuckle from jasmine, or from the ten million other scents used for perfumes. I only knew the term “honeysuckle” because I had, in my younger days, asked my aunt where that distinctive smell around her came from.

Three, that reflected in my uncle’s clear, black eyes, was an image of my aunt sitting next to me. She was smiling.

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