By Khoo Yi Xuan
My white shirt had started to smell like incense.
The Buddhist wake had been set up under our HDB block. Friends and family had begun to file into the void deck earlier today, sitting at any of the twenty round tables that were each wrapped neatly in crinkly white plastic. Husks of peanuts and melon seeds rose in mounds from every table, proof of the hours spent catching up and reminiscing about the times they had had with Ah Gong.
The vibrant yellow of the tarp around the void deck didn’t reflect the emptiness I felt. I sat at the table furthest from the coffin, thoughtless, as the words of my relatives floated past my ears. I didn’t need the reminder that my fourteen years’ worth of memories with Ah Gong would disappear as soon as the wake ended. If I had a choice, it wouldn’t be like this. But that was the way it was.
A shadow caught my eye. I shifted my gaze back to the front of the void deck where the casket lay, where a mysterious man now stood. His unnaturally tall stature was hard to ignore. We made eye contact. Something about his gaze beckoned me to him. It was welcoming– peaceful even. I found myself on my feet for the first time in hours, walking briskly towards the casket.
“Good evening, Ashley.” His voice was melodic, almost like one you’d hear in an advertisement. “My name is Orion. I’m a Presence from Hell. I have been sent on behalf of the Post-Death Committee to inform you of the post-death processes.”
Death. I’d done nothing but think about it for the past twelve hours. A bitter taste filled my mouth. “You’re here to tell me I’m going to forget Ah Gong. I already know. Everyone forgets. The dead and their belongings are all burned. Nothing left.”
My cheeks were flushed. Orion smiled kindly despite my defensive comments. “You’re not wrong. However, being the closest person to the deceased, you are to be given the chance to remember him.”
Orion watched amusedly as thoughts soared through my mind. There was a chance. A chance to not lose Ah Gong. He pulled a shiny silver tin out of thin air and handed it to me. “You have till the end of your grandfather’s five-day wake to collect three items in this tin. After the wake, every memory of your grandfather will stem from these objects. Should you fail to do exactly so, you shall possess no memory of him.”
I nodded excitedly. “I won’t fail. I can’t forget.”
“Good luck,” said Orion, fading before my eyes.
I hadn’t begun going through his things. I only paused in the emptiness of his cluttered room, taking in this new aura that had overcome what used to be his space—the space now filled by mere possessions that I would have to so carefully choose from.
I had to start somewhere. I scanned the room for Ah Gong’s wallet–I already knew what I wanted to find.
1. The picture
The timestamp read 7 October 2006. Its yellowish tint and brittle nature proved its fourteen years of existence. I picked the picture up, careful to not rip it. Creases had formed where it was folded to fit into Ah Gong’s old leather wallet.
Ah Gong’s burly hands looked giant in comparison to my new-born self. He couldn’t keep his eyes on the camera. Fixated on his first and only grandchild, they sparkled with such immense pride that the new-born’s curious eyes couldn’t resist the urge to open and gaze back at them. His wide smile made his angular jaw seem too large for his neck.
And yet, so fleeting were these moments we spent together, so vast the number of memories we made. To choose to keep a singular photograph would be to select a singular memory and deem every other one unworthy of remembrance.
But what choice did I have?
The door creaked open to reveal my mother, shopper handbag looped around her forearm, hand on her hip.
“What are you doing?” She probed at a stack of old magazines with her foot, while looking around the room wistfully.
“Gathering some of Ah Gong’s stuff,” I replied half-heartedly. “Don’t want to forget him.”
“Come, let’s go back to the void deck. People all asking where you are.” She plucked the picture out of my hand, analysing her new finding. “Wow, this was from so long ago… His room probably got a lot of things, we clear later. Don’t go anyhow touch now, don’t think about it liao.”
Before she left the room, she paused for a moment, gripping the tiny picture in her bony hands. Then, blinking herself out of her daze, she passed the picture to me and turned swiftly to leave.
“See you downstairs.”
I lowered it carefully into the tin and slipped the tin into Ah Gong’s closet for safekeeping. My heart throbbed. The picture was the only item I was sure to include. But what else should I put in?
I shuffled through the heavy air of the void deck, bright blue pants screaming the guy in the coffin is my grandfather. Standing before the casket, I lit a joss stick and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Ah Gong, please. I need to find the other objects. Please. I need to remember you.”
“Why are you here again?” It was day two. My mother had walked in on me tearing Ah Gong’s room apart in search of feasible objects. “Tell you already, come here you will never get over Ah Gong. It will just make you sadder.”
I could see her concern. It might’ve been my panicked state that seemed to strip me entirely of rational thinking. Or maybe it was because my mother had brought up Ah Gong. My rage and pent-up frustration flooded out of me.
“So leave! Who says I want to get over Ah Gong? If you’re so eager to forget him then you can get out!” The thought of forgetting him brought a tight, wrenching feeling to my chest. I couldn’t bear it.
My mother gaped at me, eyes wide. Whirling around, she slammed the door behind her, leaving me to wallow in the unsettling silence of heartache once more. I could swear I heard a sniffle from the other side of the door, but I had to focus. There were too many memories I had to sift through, and the three objects I was allowed would bring me nowhere near summarising them.
I assessed the room desperately. There had to be somewhere I hadn’t looked. Something I’d missed.
2. The tape
Ah Gong had a lot of cassette tapes. Be it mixtapes, home movies, recordings of old operas or even his own recordings, he had it all. A whole shelf full of them, no less.
I pulled out the only tape that was wrapped in white paper. Staining the fibres of the paper was a drawing I must’ve made when I was three or four. Stickman Ah Gong and Stickman Ashley smiled up at me.
Sitting in a pile of Ah Gong’s clothes, I unwrapped the cassette and clicked it into his vintage cassette deck. After a few seconds of static, the aged recording commenced, crackling with a comforting static.
This is for my beautiful granddaughter, Ashley. I hope you grow up to be a kind, polite, smart young lady. Okay? Ah Gong’s slightly muffled voice rang through. It almost felt like he was in the room with me.
Okay! My younger self chirped. I could picture her stubby fingers wrapped around a crayon, drawing whatever her heart desired.
You want to show how you sing? Ah Gong asked.
My eyelids met as I sank into a pile of Ah Gong’s clothes, taking in the sweet memory. As Ah Gong sang along with me, our voices blended together. The simple tune of the Alphabet Song brought a light feeling to my chest, as if I’d forgotten Ah Gong was now gone.
Collecting myself, I quickly patted the spot of moisture that had leaked out of my eyelids and onto Ah Gong’s white tank top. I got up and crawled across his bed to reach the closet, where I had left the tin.
I slid the closet door open and was met with the sight of Ah Gong’s cluttered belongings. Something was off. My tin. It was gone. It wasn’t there.
My eyes darted around the room. I only had a day and a half left. I had to find the tin. I had to remember Ah Gong.
A silvery glint beneath a stack of newspapers caught my eye. Please be the tin—a spark seemed to light within me—please be the tin.
I picked the shiny object up.
3. The lighter
The lighter was a gift from my grandmother for their 18th anniversary. Its rectangular exterior was complete with a smooth matte grey topcoat. Engraved into its body was the number 18. The age she had met Ah Gong.
Ah Gong had done it too many times. One smooth action of withdrawing a white and orange roll and sticking it between his lips while clicking the lighter. He would bring the flame up to his lips, where his cigarette would already be waiting.
I clicked the metallic flint wheel and watched the scarlet flame dance about. My finger lifted from the wheel and I watched the lively flame flicker away, leaving nothing but the faint scent of lighter fluid. Going, going, gone.
I held the lighter and the cassette in my palms pathetically. Without the tin, what use would these objects be? Orion wouldn’t accept it, and I would forget Ah Gong anyway.
The all-too-familiar voice halted my pulse.
I turned. Ah Gong’s spirit sat on his bed, a gentle smile gracing his wrinkled, freckled face. A tinge of sadness lingered in his eyes. My eyes widened.
Shaking, I knelt by his feet. His translucent fingers passed through the red of my cheeks as he tried to wipe my tears away. He drew back, his eyebrows creased, the way they do when he was sad, or about to cry.
“I got very little time. I’m sorry.” Woven into each simple word was pain.
“What should I do?” I choked out my quivering words. “Without the tin, I’ll fail and you… you’ll be gone. I miss you so much already, Ah Gong. I can’t forget you.”
He concentrated his melancholic gaze on me. I could sense his thoughts spiralling through his mind, trying to piece together the right words.
My desperation to cling on to my memories sent a crushing ache to my chest. How could I leave it behind? His broken English, mixed scent of cologne and cigarette smoke, his loving smile and of course, all the times we’ve spent together? How could I let the biggest part of my fourteen years of existence go?
“I don’t want you to hold on to these objects and be so sad that I’m gone. We have too many memories. Objects also cannot show. And maybe I’ll meet Ah Ma again…” his eyes were dreamy and a sweet smile danced about his lips as thoughts of seeing his long-lost lover twirled through his mind.
He looked back at me reassuringly. “I’ll be happy up there too. I will still see you from up there.”
I had so much to say, but nothing came out. I only nodded sadly, a thin film of tears blurring my vision.
“And… I’m sorry I have to go,” his voice trailed off. “Trust yourself. Remember what I say? Some things 命中注定. If fate wants it to happen, it will happen. No need to use objects replace me. I just want you to be happy. You happy, I also happy, okay? I love you, Ash-Ash.”
“I love you too, Ah Gong,” I lifted my head to see him one last time, but I was too late. Ah Gong had vanished.
I was alone once more. I closed my eyes and let the silence take hold of my thoughts.
The sudden shrill ringing of my phone shot me back into reality. When I saw my mother’s contact name on the screen, I knew it was time.
There was a tinge of calmness in her voice. “The final ceremony starts soon. Come down now okay?”
I walked up to my mother, who sat at a nearby table.
“So how?” came her awkward question. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” My voice trembled.
“I… I want to say sorry. I never tell you my feelings… ‘cos I must be strong for you. I want to support you. I know how much you miss Ah Gong.”
I nodded, but all I could produce was, “That’s alright. I’m sorry I was rude.”
“The final ceremony is starting soon.” She changed the subject deftly. I supposed she was ready to let go. She’d always been. Now it was my turn. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t accept it.
Nodding and turning to pay my final respects, I saw Orion standing where he stood before, staring thoughtfully at the casket’s glossy finish. I walked up to him.
As I approached, he shifted his gaze to meet mine. A curious expression was plastered on his bony face. After all, the tin I was supposed to be holding was now gone.
My empty hands felt heavy.
This was it. The end of the five days’ worth of decisions was seconds away. I glanced at the picture of Ah Gong placed by the casket. Every memory I had with him raced along the folds of my mind. In a few hours, this face would trigger nothing. Anything that could’ve helped me remember him was now gone, and my Ah Gong would be a mere fragment of my past.
“I… I lost the tin, so I couldn’t do exactly what you asked.” My speech steadied as I spoke. “I’m okay with giving up my memories. It’s only fair. We… We made a deal and I won’t go back on my word because—”
Orion only smiled. “Ashley. You handled this task well. The true purpose of this task was to have you consider which memories of your grandfather truly mattered to you. The Judgement Panel has assessed your process of collecting these objects and has decided to allow you to retain all memories of your grandfather.”
This news rendered me speechless. I could only stare back at Orion, whose calm, amused smile brought joy more immense than ever. He stuck a hand out, expecting a handshake.
I didn’t take the hint. Instead, I threw my arms out and around him, suffocating him in a hug. He definitely did not expect it, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“I wish you all the best,” he said, giving me an affirmative nod before he dissolved before my eyes.
As Orion’s warm presence faded, I joined my relatives as the final ceremony commenced. My thoughts muffled the chanting in the background as I held on tight to my memories of Ah Gong—as I would for the rest of my life.
Khoo Yi Xuan is a current Literary Arts student at School of the Arts, Singapore. Spirited and enthusiastic, she loves seeing vitality in life and sometimes expresses this through her writing. Her favourite book genres are Sci-Fi, Dystopian Fiction and Thriller. In her free time, Yi Xuan enjoys binge-watching shows, reading and spending time with friends.
Image: @resikling via Unsplash