All Souls’ Day

On a drive to visit her grandfather’s grave, an eight-year-old takes her first step away from child-like, self-absorption, towards compassion.

Sophie remembered two things her mother had told her about the day she was born. While under anaesthesia for her C-section delivery, Sophie’s mother had had a dream.

Like in the movies where the screen is split, she had seen two tableaus in a single frame – one of a sickly old man in a hospital bed, with family and friends gathered solemnly around him, and the other of a black rotary telephone on a wooden table. When the phone started to ring, Sophie’s mother panicked. “Don’t pick up!” she had thought. As a hand lifted the receiver and a voice said, “Hello?” she heard Sophie’s first cry, which in her sedated sleep, seemed to come from very far away, as if arising from the people standing around the old man, who at that moment, expelled his last breath.

Before she met Sophie’s father and converted to Catholicism, Sophie’s mother was a Buddhist who believed in things like reincarnation and the karmic wheel of life. When Sophie was old enough to speak, her mother had told her about this child-birthing dream, and explained that life was a lot like that: for one person to be born, another had to die.

When her mother awoke after her surgery and held Sophie for the first time, she noticed a coin-sized birthmark just above her newborn’s belly button. When Sophie was old enough and aware of it, she would sometimes stare at her birthmark in the mirror, and say how ugly it was, but her mother, who had over time, become more Catholic than Buddhist, said it was beautiful. She told Sophie that the birthmark was a kiss from heaven, a sign that Sophie was a good and blessed child, with a guardian angel who was always near.

Now that Sophie is almost eight, the birthmark, once a shade of deep brown and shaped like a lip, has become less noticeable. Though the growth of her little body stretched the mark out over a larger patch of skin, the intensity of its colour is diminished. The mark is now pale brown and barely perceptible, and looks more like a coffee stain than the imprint of angel lips. Sophie fears this means she is turning bad, that her blessings are being retracted, and her angel will soon leave her.

Today is All Soul’s Day, the day that Sophie’s family visits Grandpa’s grave. Sophie was crammed into her father’s old Volkswagen Beetle. Her family had just attended Sunday morning Mass at the Church of the Risen Christ, and her father was now driving them to the Catholic cemetery in Choa Chu Kang. Her mother, who was wearing her black dress with the large shoulder pads, sat up front with Sophie’s younger sister Tammy on her lap, and a bouquet of white lilies near her feet. Sophie, her Grandma, her Aunt Judith, her Aunt Pauline, and her cousin Carmen were all packed into the Beetle’s back seat. Carmen was seated on her Aunt Judith’s lap, and Sophie on Aunt Pauline’s.

Sophie was uncomfortable being squashed in the car with all the grown-ups. Her underwear was riding up her buttocks and she didn’t have enough space to shift herself and readjust them. She wished that Grandpa hadn’t died. That way, they could all have just gone straight home after Mass. She wouldn’t have to be stuck in the car with all these women who held onto her with protective hands, and who always fussed over her more than she liked.

At this time of year, Singapore sees endless weeks of monsoon showers. November and December bring white-sheet rain, downpours with clapping thunder and shocks of lighting, rain that veils the world in an opaque, chalky membrane. Trees and buildings disappear into the whiteness, and everything loses shape and form. This was how it was today, and Sophie found herself deep in thought as she balanced her weight on Aunt Pauline’s lap, her mind flittering from one subject to another.

Recently, she’s been thinking about where she’d go after she died. There’s a little wooden cupboard with sliding doors, built into the wall just behind her bed. Sophie’s body fitted perfectly into it, and it was her favourite spot when she played hide and seek with her mother or Carmen. She would lie down in the dark and inhale the scent of plywood. Once she slid the doors shut from the inside, she could barely move her arms and legs. She would imagine that the cupboard was her coffin, and that she was dead. As she laid still in her make-believe coffin, she would think about what heaven might be like. She concluded it was a place in the sky where there was no night, and where the ground was made of white, cotton candy clouds. Up in this place, she would be a gigantic version of herself, a hundred, or perhaps a thousand times bigger than she was now, though she would still look the same. There was nobody and nothing else up there but fluffy whiteness, bright light, and Sophie. She would peer down through a crack in the cloud-carpet, at the world below, where all the people looked like ants.

She thought this was all rather nice, being surrounded by soft, marshmallowy clouds, completely alone, with no one telling her what to do. Sometimes, during her time in the cupboard, she thought about her mother’s dream of the old man and the telephone. Whenever this happened, she became convinced that it was her fault her paternal grandfather Robert, whose grave they’d be visiting, died a few hours before she was born. This would also explain why her father was always so serious and stern, why he didn’t play hide and seek, or any other games with her like her mother did. Sometimes she felt that he didn’t really like her. “Because of me, my daddy no longer has his daddy. No wonder he’s always in a bad mood,” she concluded during one of her cupboard sessions.

“Mama,” Sophie once asked her mother, “Did Grandpa Robert go to heaven? Can I go to heaven now?” She felt bad that her arrival resulted in her grandfather’s disappearance, and thought that she would very much like to meet him.

Eavesdropping on the adults once, Sophie had overheard the story of Grandpa Robert’s death. On the evening that Sophie was born, Grandpa had returned home from the racecourse drunk. His children had come over for dinner and his wife insisted he sit down with the family to eat, but he said he wasn’t hungry. Aunt Judith, noticing his wobbly gait, then told her father he should just go to bed, he’d need to be up early the next day to see his newborn granddaughter. He became argumentative, as he often did after having too much to drink, and told the women to be quiet. Then he stomped out of the flat, slamming the front door, and stumbled down the building’s stairwell to get to a bottle of rice wine from the shop nearby. A neighbour had dumped an old tin of dried-out paint near the top of the stairs. Clumsy from the drink, Grandpa tripped over it, fell, and cracked his skull.

Sophie had tried to imagine what a cracked skull looked like. She wondered why Grandpa didn’t just stay home and have dinner with the family. If he had, perhaps he’d still be here. She thought about her grandma, who always smelled of Two Girls talcum powder and menthol cigarettes, and her aunts who always seemed to be complaining about something. She could understand why Grandpa needed to get out of that flat. Maybe, like her, he too found Grandma’s unpleasant smells, and Pauline’s and Judith’s shrill voices irritating, and just needed to escape for some peace.

Sophie thought how nice it would be if they were driving to the coffeehouse at the Goodwood Park Hotel instead of some wet field with mosquitoes, stone crucifixes, and ceramic portraits of dead people on big marble slabs. But the coffeehouse was where they went on Easter, not All Soul’s Day. Her mother had explained that All Soul’s was a “solemn day”, and not a day for eating like Easter Sunday.

As the women chatted about people Sophie didn’t know or care about, Sophie’s father popped The Carpenter’s into the car’s cassette player and turned the volume up. “We’ve Only Just Begun” drowned out the women’s voices.

Sophie began fantasizing about Easter dinners at the coffeehouse. She imagined herself sitting at her favourite corner table with a warm bread roll and cream of mushroom soup. After she finished her meal, she would play “cook” with Carmen, who was two years older than her. They would add salt, pepper, chilli and soy sauce into the melting ice cream from the banana split that someone had eaten for dessert, then mix it all up. The adults would tell them to stop making a mess, but allow them to continue anyway because they were too busy with their own grown-up conversations. Her sister Tammy, who was only three, wouldn’t be allowed to play “cook” with them because she was a crybaby.

When Tammy was still in her mother’s belly, Sophie couldn’t wait for her to come out. But once Tammy had appeared, Sophie started to feel miserable. The stupid creature didn’t understand that when she borrowed Sophie’s View-Master or Cabbage Patch Kid, she should return them when asked to. Everyone had told Sophie that she was “so cute”, but not any more. These days, it was baby Tammy who was “so cute” and now it’s just “Sophie do this”, “Sophie don’t do that”, “Sophie help me with this”, “Sophie, don’t touch that”. Her father, who had never yelled at her before, now seemed to be cross with her all the time. Whenever Tammy cried because Sophie wouldn’t share her toys, Father would glare at Sophie and say “So-pheee…don’t be selfish. Your sister is younger, you should give in to her. You’re no longer a child. You need to think about others, not just yourself.”

After one such incident, Sophie was so angry that she decided to kill Tammy. She tossed about in bed all night, clenching her tiny fists, tasting something bitter – like the horrible herbal teas her Grandma made her drink when she had a cold – swirling in the back of her throat. When everyone was fast asleep, she crept into her sister’s room with a big pillow, and a plan to smother her. But Tammy was awake, and she smiled, exposing two little milk teeth. Sophie decided she would spare Tammy’s life after all, and instead pressed her nose into the tuft of downy hair on the baby’s head and inhaled its sweet scent. Her attempt at murder made Sophie suspect that the “good” power of her magic birthmark was beginning to wane, that she was no longer blessed, but starting to rot.

To read more, buy my book Without: Stories of lack and longing

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