The old man was in bed at the time. He had already dozed off moments earlier from the gentle purring of his Mrs’ snores. A dream had taken him to a world of fiords and crystal clear water and above them, stunning gorges showing off autumn colours and white waterfalls. The purring from the Mrs was calming and comforting, quite unlike the guttural sounds she made during the day. Her covid coughs were showing signs of abating earlier in the week, giving false hope that her mood would improve and that her complaints about being homesick would dissipate. “You know I don’t like leaving home for more than two weeks,” she complained that morning. The old man understood that perfectly well. Every holiday they had together that exceeded two weeks was unfailingly met with plummeting morale and fading interest about places to visit and things to do once she started voicing her disdain for “outside food” and her preference for her own cooking. “I miss my own bed,” she said. The old man shuddered. Missing her own bed and pillows was always a precursor to an abrupt disinterest in doing anything together.
A sea lion’s bark startled the old man and ended his dream.
“Khaw, khaw, kragh!”
“Kra, khhhh, krghh,” the Mrs spluttered and seemed eager to spit out her bloated lungs.
She choked on her own batch of saliva that had collected at the base of her tongue and muttered some indiscernible words that sounded coarse. She let out a loud sigh in the dark, a signal the old man knew not to disregard.
“I’ll get you some water,” he said whilst his eyes adjusted to the darkness and the Mrs’ head began to form a clearer image. Her torso and busty curves were totally invisible, buried in the mountain of thick, fluffy, expensive comforters and quilt.
He turned back to his bedside table and inched his hand forward towards the solid table lamp. Unlike the one at home, this one was heavy and sat firmly and securely. There was no risk of him toppling it to its side, but the habit of being careful had formed over many years and he flicked the switch with great care in the dark. A bright white light spread from the lamp and lit up his side of the room whilst throwing shadows that seemed to dance and move in the halation. His head felt foggy, affected by blocked ears and a slight chill in his body. Quick to dismiss any thoughts of being sick, he got up and filled the Mrs’ cup with tap water. Mind over matter. If you think you’re sick, you’ll be sick. He told himself not to be sick.
He had the chills a week earlier, when they were still in Wellington. They had just got back from a stunning holiday in Queenstown where he was finally convinced the world had to be created by a great artist. His puny mind lacked the capacity to theorise if there was one God or a team of gods that was responsible for such grand creations, but the natural landscapes and the richness of colours and shapes left him agog and bewildered that nature’s incomparable tool bag of palettes and brushes, chisels and hammers could produce such an astounding array of formations and sceneries. The chills he had lasted an afternoon. After a less than satisfactory lunch at Little Penang – their second visit in a week – he complained to the Mrs that the Hokkien Char was too salty and even the sliver of Char Koay Teow from her plate was overwhelmed by the amount of salt. They ate very little that afternoon, and having decided the left-overs would be their dinner, they asked for a take-away box at a cost of fifty cents. On the way back to their hotel, he asked the Mrs to stop by a chemist to get some Panadol for his fever. He sunned himself on a bench but the afternoon sun in windy Wellington did nothing to help warm him up. His reflection on the display window diverted his eyes away from the stack of Oral-B boxes and his eyes instead rested on a hapless old man huddled in his own arms and crouched in a heap like a sick droopy-eyed chook. He didn’t have the energy to chastise himself for comparing himself to a sick chook. Once they got back to the hotel, the old couple did not exchange any words. For him, all that mattered was a long hot shower and a dose of pills. The following day, his fever had subsided and he was as good as gold. Four days later, they arrived in Christchurch.
They were greeted by a cold driving rain and a foreboding grey sky, a grey that was matched by the miserable buildings left in ruins by the 2011 earthquakes. There was a revival of sorts but the pace of progress was decidedly slow. The city’s cathedral was still hoarded up and the weather only made it feel more miserable. The old man’s childhood friend, Law Choong Chet, was there to greet them at the airport. He was the sunshine that beamed warmth and love when everywhere else was cold and forbidding in sync. They were classmates in school for three years, yet when Choong Chet left in 1972, he left without a goodbye. It wasn’t customary to say goodbye to school friends in those days. The friends and their spouses had lunch that afternoon in a chic end of town. They travelled in a Ferrari-red Tesla; the engine of it was so incredibly smooth and silent the old man quietly marvelled at it.
The following morning, the Mrs suddenly exhibited signs of a fever and developed a nagging cough that subsequently got louder and frequent. The old couple’s son had just joined them having also arrived from Wellington. Choong Chet and his wife Karen were out attending prior engagements. The old couple’s son insisted his mother did a RAT test. The mother said “don’t be silly, it’s just a cough,” but she obediently allowed the son to attend to her. The two red lines that appeared were unexpected. “You’ve got covid, mum,” the son said, as he moved a yard further away from his mother. There was no question that they had to break the awful news to their hosts. In Wellington, they were discussing what gifts to bring to their hosts but never did they consider that they would be bringing the coronavirus to them. Choong Chet didn’t care and Karen blamed it on their son who had been unwell the week before when she too came down with symptoms the following day.
The old man said to his son he felt awkward despite his friend’s nonchalance about catching covid from the Mrs. “No, ba,” the son said, observing that his father should feel rotten. A fish is still fresh and welcomed on the first and second day, maybe even ok on the third day. “You’re like a fifth day fish, definitely off and smelly.”
The old man propped himself higher against a pile of new pillows in his bed. His phone lit up from an incoming message. The long crypto winter had meant he no longer checked on crypto prices during the night, but that was a lie he had told his friends. His eyes were soon combing through the crypto board, but the colour was predominantly red. He sighed and almost forgot to check the WhatsApp messages. The message had come in at 11.18 pm, Christchurch time. The old man’s hands turned cold, not from the wintry conditions outside, but it was as if his heart had stopped and the blood in his veins had frozen in permafrost. His reflection on the window pane showed how quickly he had aged as he read the message. His hoary hair had turned mostly white and the lines on his forehead had etched deeply and permanently, adding more scars to his already disfigured pock-marked face, a face now wrecked with pain and confusion. How can this happen? He let out a deathly scream inside his head, a blood-curdling shriek at the gods that allowed it to happen. This is so wrong! We come into this world, work our guts out, do the best for ourselves and for our family and just when we are ready to bask in perpetual sunshine and immerse ourselves in a well-deserved respite of joy and rest, our life is ruthlessly and abruptly cut short. He read the message again and again, initially in disbelief and later in shock and horror. He pulled at his hair which was coming down in bundles around his ears and teased a few wayward strands away from his mouth.
Hello everyone, I am Joanna, daughter of Dr Lum Wei Wah sending this message on behalf of the Lum family. It is with great sadness for me to announce that my father passed away yesterday during his trip to Egypt, most likely due to a heart attack. We know that he is safely in God’s hands and God has allowed him to see the most wondrous sights in his last moments where he enjoyed the most. We will update you further on funeral services.
Wei Wah’s death reverberated in the old man’s mind throughout the remaining days of his holiday in New Zealand. A doctor, a learned man, he would have been alert to his own health issues if any, and he would surely have the best means to look after himself. Yet, he succumbed to the vagaries of life and the uncertain candle in the wind. What do we do, we lesser human beings? He was not only tall, dark and handsome, he was also someone special, incredibly smart, generous and kind. In his army fatigues, he looked remarkably fit and strong. His sculpted body, the toned muscular frame and display of agility and strength gave no hint of his impending demise. It was clear he loved life and life loved him. It was said he died during a diving mishap, likely in the Red Sea but could he have met his death on the Nile? No one would ever expect death to appear during their happiest moments. Blessed with three brilliant children and a brilliant wife, his great leap in front of the Pyramids of Giza celebrating his love for life will leave a lasting memory to those who knew him. Rest in eternal peace, brother Wei Wah. May your legacy be as great and long as the great pyramids. Wei Wah’s story appeared in the Urghhling Brothers of the Marsh, in the chapter titled The Venerable Sickly General.