Some few weeks after the events that took place on that dinner table, the friend group had found itself in quite unsteady grounds. There was nothing for weeks on their chat group. Not a single one of them knew what the other was doing and they all just pretty much went to work and lead their separate lives. Tzen and Jenny however, had been texting each other quite frequently ever since he quite naturally one day opened up to her about his constant visions of what he calls ‘Sheila in Black’. They were due to meet up this afternoon at a local restaurant. Tzen kept having this weird sense that he was being watched, but everything he had been experiencing recently made him distrust himself even more.
While he waited, he had gotten a drink for himself, and that’s when he suddenly had an odd recollection. It came to him like a slap on his face, and then he remembered the first time he saw that top, that miniskirt and that leggings, all in black.
Tzen was two rotations down and his third was beginning that day. He was excited, recharged and ready; exactly what a good long vacation in the isles of the Philippines promised and delivered. Four solid days was all it took; every tender coconut, every bottle of cold beer, every local girl he ever danced with and all cuisine he indulged in essentially protected his fragile little bubble of sanity from popping. He had finally the time to spend with his family, tell a few stories, share a few laughs and see the loving smiles on their faces resonate back at him. All that plus the added advantage of basking in the glow of praise on how much better he was than his cousins because of who he was; not just a doctor but ‘their’ doctor and they couldn’t be prouder.
With all the memories in mind, they bid each other a farewell at the airport departures. The family went back to Kuching and Tzen took the 9 pm to Kuala Lumpur where he would shut his eyes for a few hours before driving back to the hospital quarters. All through the journey back he felt as though he left his heart back at the airport in Manila. He missed his family and their smiles. Tzen wanted to talk more, spend time more, and continuously live in that frozen moment. He never really shared his experiences especially the more gritty uncomfortable parts of the job, the sleeplessness, the mental abuse, complaints and the morbidity of everything. The worse was when he even reached a point where envied the dead because they could do something he couldn’t and that was to finally get some well-deserved rest.
They told him he’d lost so much weight to which he jokingly replied, ‘housemanship is good cardio, mother’. He wanted so badly to curl up under a blanket, lie his head over her lap and just tell her how hard things were. Instead, he hid behind a facade of wide-open smiles and clever jokes to distract himself from long awkward conversations about the horrors at work. How were these people ever going to understand the cynism of the comings and goings in his workplace? They think a simple cold warrants a hospital visit, or worse even, ‘prayer’.
This by no means labelled Tzen an atheist, rather he was just cynical, waiting for God to show up someday and be humbled by how right Tzen was; that everything was, in fact, pointless and empty. He had believed himself to be grown up, mature, and even rid himself of his childhood name. His mother would still insist on using it though, despite his objections and only she could.
He sat in his car, sipped a little from the coffee flask and watched the empty car park. Nobody had left for work yet. Most people were still enjoying their last few hours of slumber but it wasn’t like that for interns. ‘Why must I go to work at 6.30 in the morning? What did I do to deserve this?’
But deep down he knew it was just the fatigue talking. He genuinely loved every bit of it, the intrigue, the horror, the drama and the game. To him it was like a love letter to life itself, showing appreciation for every breath, compassion for every pain and respect for every soul birthed and lost.
He played the morning radio, still lumbering along the slow jams. ‘Even the radio isn’t awake yet.’ He laughed to himself while sipping his coffee.
The roads were empty, long and black under the glimmer of street lights with intermittent faded out markings on the black tar to keep him in his lane. There was not another vehicle in sight. He took his time to take it all in. He remembered the bustling city of Manilla, the crowds and the yelling, the traffic massively congested at rush hour and all the motorcycles slipping in between like tiny fishes in a rapid stream. Contrarily, this was all calm and quiet.
His upper eyelids were getting heavier. He even swerved on to another lane a couple of times.
‘Shit!’ He cursed and chugged down hot burning gulps of his beverage. He opened his eyes wide. ‘Focus dude,’ he told himself.
A flash of light forced him to blink. A loud blinding reflection hit over the side mirrors startling him. There was a growing mass of iridescence all over his driver seat window; white and warm, accompanied with a long loud blaring horn. Then, there was just ‘pain’.
Tzen woke up feeling his left hand holding another’s. It was warm, soft and delicate. ‘Sheila?’
She smiled when he could recognize her. In her lab coat, dark lipstick and black heels, she shook her head making clicking noises, judging him. ‘Look,’ she pointed with her nose.
Tzen saw multiple casts over his right leg and left wrist.
‘Oh my God, the truck,’ he remembered. ‘The car!’ He yelled. His head was throbbing.
‘Relax. We got it all covered. Your family is outside. They got themselves a hotel. They’d want to see you finally awake. It’s been a few hours.’
Sheila freed his hand and started to walk out.
‘Wait’ he cried. ‘How is the truck driver?’
‘Ortho thinks he doesn’t need surgery. Surgical thinks his head CT is fine. So, if I were you I will be counting my stars right now. Oh, but you don’t really believe in that sort of thing now do you?’
‘No. But I’m glad to see you though,’
‘The whole hospital saw you, Tzen.’
The clock struck 4.30 pm and the chimed before the announcer made it official. The doors were open and the visitors rushed in simultaneously as the doctors rushed out.
Sheila peeked through the tiny window of Tzen’s door in the executive ward. The genuine tears and hugs even pulled at her heartstrings. The parents clearly didn’t mind the exorbitance as long as their son had the best.
‘Sweet family,’ Sheila mumbled to herself. Unaware that a nurse was standing beside her listening, nodding her head being mesmerized by the same scene. ‘It’s like a family from the commercials, don’t you agree?’ The nurse quipped and they chuckled a little.
‘Yup. Everybody loves Tzen.’
Orthopaedics had unanimously deemed Tzen for discharge the very same day and immediately was put on official sick leave. He had a minor fracture in his wrist and fibula but nothing that warranted surgery. This meant for the next two weeks Tzen would not have to worry about the hospital. His mother insisted he come home, and to persuade him further, she invited the whole gang to follow. She thought that would definitely do the trick. She knew her son well. Tzen’s mother only knew of the five, although they hardly met, she figured they were his closest friends still since the beginning. However, due it being such short notice, Sheila and Jenny were the only ones who could take her offer and that for three days the most.
Nevertheless, it promised an exciting adventure ahead. ‘I’ve never been east,’ Jenny remarked, ‘it would be interesting to live on trees and greet monkeys every morning,’
‘Haha, funny! Like we have never heard of that one before,’ Tzen sneered. He had gone pretty accustomed to how the stereotype went for his home state, but this was his chance to show them how wrong they were.
Tzen’s family lived in a large house that had its own yard. It was not part of any urban planning project. Rather it was built by his paternal great grandparents and passed down for generations.
The whole family came to visit. They had arranged some sort of potluck. Sheila and Jenny proud of being 21st-century women, wanted no part of the kitchen. Still, watching all those old ladies slog and slave, it felt wrong not to lend a hand.
Tzen’s brother, Alan, who had a masters degree in engineering was also quite busy doing something so out of his forte and that was running after chicken for slaughter. He seemed more natural at it though, like he had intensive training since childhood. Jenny was flustered when she caught a glimpse of his arms and immediately texted Daniel to ask what he was doing.
Sheila though found herself in an uncomfortable position, and that was socializing with Tzen’s father. She gave him her ear while he narrated all his tales from the ‘good old days’. She was actually more interested in their family portraits, the paintings of all their ancestors, the old sewing machine by the corner that had been passed down from woman to woman. In all honesty, for Sheila, she felt as though she had unknowingly strolled into a museum.
Tzen had been sitting on the porch hanging his casts by the side letting his nephews and nieces sign on it. They were so excited teasing him for his disability and that he couldn’t chase after them. It was like a pass for mischieve and knowing Tzen could do nothing made it all the more fun. Tzen’s grandfather insisted he went for a stroll downhill anyway. ‘No man sits and licks his own wounds,’ he yelled, mocking the boy.
Sheila and Jenny were surprised to see so many neighbours just hanging about in the house, eating their food, watching their television acting like family. ‘It’s never like this over there.’
‘And that one is a Muslim too. That’s like one in a million.’ Jenny replied.
‘It’s not uncommon. The “divide” those politicians on TV always spew about doesn’t exist over here. Not yet anyway. This is an old country, where people didn’t really care about race or religion, just work and family, whether you came by the British or long before that. Even orphans were seen as our own regardless of the colour of their skin. But in the west, “race” is all everyone talks about.’ Tzen’s father exclaimed. The grandfather added, ‘Yes. Korporal Muni, nice Indian chap. He saved my life once that bugger. Made sure the Japs never got to me. You’ve seen his grandkids? All grown up now.’
Tzen nodded his head, politely acknowledging his grandfather.
Dinner was served and they all sat at the dinner table together. Tzen’s brother took the chair opposite Jenny and smiled.
‘She has a boyfriend,’ Sheila burst aloud intervening, ending any possible chance of flirting or romance. The table chuckled while watching the two cower their heads in embarrassment.
‘How about you Sheila?’ Tzen’s mother whom they learned her name to be Marrie Yong asked.
Sheila started to awkwardly laugh. Her blushing felt strange and exaggerated. ‘It’s not like any guy out there is knocking at my door.’
Marrie continued, ‘Don’t wait too long dear. Time will fly really fast. You don’t wanna miss chances. Sometimes you gotta be the one knocking. Isn’t that right Dear?’ Tzen’s father sheepishly smiled.
Sheila studied Tzen, entertained at how he was struggling to hold on to his chopsticks with his working hand. ‘Yeah,’ she replied, releasing a soft simper.
As soon as dinner was over the entire family sat outside the porch and watched the sunset over the hill.
Jenny kept texting Daniel. He had a busy day and was quite upset they couldn’t spend time together. She sent him a selfie with the sun setting in the background, in which one of Tzen’s nephews unapologetically inserted himself, making a silly face with his tongue out.
Sheila sneaked over the back of the house to have her one cigarette of the day. She lit the butt and took her first puff, then sighed long in relief.
She was behind the kitchen near the little homegrown vegetable farm. She heard something from behind the window panes and decided to have a look.
She would swear later on that it must have been some kind of divine intervention that she had to be there during that time and place. Because as she slipped her fingers between the two shards of glass and carefully retracted, she saw Marrie, sobbing under her wet hair. Then, what was even more alarming, in her right hand she held a kitchen knife in a tight grip ready to cut although there was nothing in front of her.
‘No,’ Sheila whimpered before bursting through the backdoor and into the kitchen. Marrie’s knife was inches away from her wrist when Sheila grabbed her hand and physically forced her to drop the knife. They checked the surroundings if anyone heard the clang.
‘Don’t do it,’ Sheila said warning her, still in the panic, her breathing laboured.
Marrie moved back, her face in a grimace. Embarrassed, she continued to cry.
Sheila carefully approached and gave the woman a hug.
‘Whatever it is you’re going through, you don’t have to do this alone.’
Marrie rested her head over the young doctor’s shoulders. Sheila could feel the woman’s pulsating heart beat out of her frail chest.
When she had finally calmed down a bit, Sheila sat her on a wooden stool. She moved the kitchen knife away and placed it far from reach on the countertop.
‘So. First time? I don’t see previous scars,’ Sheila’s first question.
Marrie took a minute while her tears dried. She could hear the playful laughter of her entire family faintly in the distance outside their wide open front door.
‘I never thought I’d be this woman. The type to break. Weak,’
‘Having a weak moment doesn’t make you weak. You know that right aunty?’
‘How did you know?’
‘I’m a doctor.’
Marrie chuckled. ‘You must a very good one.’
‘I am. I can read the signs,’
‘But you’re too afraid to tell my son you have feelings for him,’ she stared into Sheila’s eyes.
‘What?’ Sheila blushed.
‘I can read signs too, my dear. You don’t even know it yet do you?’
‘How about you?’ Sheila noticed Marrie was changing the subject. ‘Does your family know?’
‘And they never will.’ Marrie looked at Sheila with the hope of a promise.
‘They will. I will tell them.’
‘Please, you cannot.’
‘You don’t need to suffer alone.’
‘Please,’ Marrie approached closer with hands together. ‘They won’t understand. I will only bother them. Alan and Alvin need to keep all their focus at work. They don’t need this. Not from an old woman who has only been the strongest person they have ever known their entire lives. I made sure they were fed. Even during the riots, even when we were dirt poor. They will never see me the same again.’
‘Tell ME then. Why?’
‘Honestly. I don’t know. My life couldn’t be more perfect. My husband would fight crocodiles for me. My sons made me the proudest mother in the whole town. My daughter is a wonderful mother and her kids are beautiful. But I don’t know my place in all this. I don’t have a purpose, not anymore. I have so many friends and yet I don’t see a point to keep doing this.’
‘A lack of a purpose pushes you to end things? I’m not stupid aunty. What’s the real reason?’
‘I told you. Sometimes I would just turn on that television and not watch anything, read the paper and not understand a single word. Even with everyone around me, I would only feel… well…’
‘Alone…’ Sheila knew the feeling all too well. It wasn’t really her diagnostic skills that led her to this moment but something she herself was facing in her life.
‘You know what this is, aunty? What they call it? Then you know what you must do.’
They heard the sound of crutches thumping on the floors. Tzen was looking for his mother. He was shocked to see her pale horror-stricken face.
Sheila sighed aloud. Tzen moved back sensing a whiff of tobacco from her breath.
‘Your mother just tried to….’
‘NOOO’ Marrie screamed at her to stop.
‘You mother is…wants…to tell you something.’ Sheila conceded to Marrie’s wishes. She was right; it wasn’t Sheila’s place. Tzen dropped his shoulders back against the wall, puzzled and shocked. Marrie proceeded to cry even further, hiding her face from everyone in the room. Soon Tzen’s father approached and rushed to her aid and slowly the rest came in one by one.
That night, Tzen remembered he had long promised to take Sheila out for a little walk by the bayou. Jenny was all too tired and they all slept in the hallway, next to each other on mats made out of bamboo. Jenny found it weird being brought up a city girl with her own room since birth, but she was coming around to the new experience.
The two house officers had made their way to a small riverbend. Tzen limped ahead only to rest his bottom on the edge of the wooden jetty and swing his cast over it front and back hoping it would stop the itching.
‘Look!’ Sheila’s eyes glimmered as she saw fireflies light up the entire riverbend.
‘They’re beautiful,’ she said.
Tzen saw how the moon hit her dark roasted skin and the mysterious glow it gave her. She was dressed in all black but he could see her like she was in broad daylight. A part of him was so transfixed that he nearly uttered an audible, ‘wow’.
‘You sure it’s safe to do that. Aren’t there like crocodiles here?’
‘You don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.’
‘But they are predators.’
‘Life here knows its place. Besides, they know my family. They won’t hurt me.’ Tzen was cocky with his understanding of crocodiles and the faith he had put on them.
Sheila was impressed. ‘You sure? I don’t think that’s how…’
‘Besides if kills me it would only take a second. Not after years of Obstructive Airway Disease.’
Sheila was embarrassed. ‘It’s just a casual thing.’
‘Yet you fell the need to hide behind bushes.’
Though she would really retaliate with a defensive fury when people caught her smoking, she was warm to Tzen, feeling slightly guilty in fact.
‘Can you please not judge me right now?’
‘Fine…’ Tzen yielded. He slapped a mosquito that landed on his neck. ‘How come they aren’t biting you? You’re in all black!’
‘I tell you what,’ Sheila gazed at her shadow in the water. ‘You get your mother to meet a psychiatrist. And I’ll stop.’
Tzen’s eyes met Sheila’s and a mutual agreement was made. They starred at each others’ lips for a split second then immediately looked away before letting the feeling take over.
Sheila stared at her reflection in calm waters. There was nothing but her glowing silhouette in the moonlight. Immediately she felt ugly again.
‘OK’ Tzen said.
Sheila looked ahead at the calmness of the bayou. ‘It’s a deal then…Alvin.’
‘What?’ Tzen face grew red. ‘She told you?’
The two of them burst into hysterical laughter. Suddenly, there was a plop sound in the water and some splashing far ahead. They couldn’t see but were not in the mood of finding out. Sheila got up and handed Tzen his crutches and they hurriedly moved away. All through the walk home, they joked and laughed at each other, never grumbling once about hospital politics or work, but enjoyed another frozen moment, just friends being friends. Sheila had a few ‘Alvin’ jokes as well to get out of her system and she was not going to miss the opportunity to torment him. Tzen allowed it so as long as she promised never to mention it to the others.