By Clarissa N G
I stared at the calendar on the kitchen wall. It was two more days before Saturday, the obligatory hospital visiting day.
“What are you doing, Yin?”
I turned around and saw Han at the door.
“Washing apples.” I quickly turned off the water tap.
“You looked absent-minded,” he said.
He walked to the table, pulled a chair and sat. I forced a smile and took the basket of Gala apples from the sink.
“Do you want any?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t like the taste of apple skin.”
“If you want, I can peel it for you.”
“Will that be too much trouble?”
“No, not at all.”
I took the kitchen knife and started to peel.
“Can you do it continuously?” Han asked.
“I don’t know. I can try, but no promises,” I answered.
I peeled the apple slowly, trying not to tear the skin. But when I was almost done, I accidentally cut it a little bit too thin. The skin tore and fell down on the floor.
“Sorry,” I said, picking it up.
I peeled off the remaining skin, and gave the skinless apple to him.
“It’s fine.” He took a big bite. “You did a great job. Did you learn it from your mother?”
I smiled, but kept quiet.
My mother didn’t really know how to cook. Luckily, my father got us a housekeeper who took care of the housework.
“I wonder if my mother knew how to do that,” Han said.
“I’m sure she knew how to peel apples.”
“I think so too,” he said. “I wish I knew more about my mother.”
“Do you miss her a lot?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “How can you miss someone you barely remember? The only memory I have of her was from the photographs.”
Like most children at Sunflower House, Han had nowhere to go. His mother died when he was young, and soon his father passed away too. And no relatives were willing to take him.
“You may not know this, but I’m really glad that you’re here,” Han said.
I laughed. “What made you say that?”
“Because now I’m not the oldest one in this place, Yin. It’s nice not to be the oldest one for once.”
“There is nothing wrong with being the oldest.”
Even though Han was a smart and likeable boy, he had a weak body. And that decreased his chance of adoption.
“Have you ever been to the pet shop?” he asked.
“Hmmm … Once or twice, I guess?”
“This place works like a pet shop, don’t you think so?” He said it casually, as if he was asking if I wanted strawberry jam or honey to go with my toast. “All of us are puppies waiting to be bought. The older we are, the less likely anyone will buy us.”
I forced myself to laugh. “Then I’ll be the saddest one left on the shelf.”
“You’re different, Yin.” He took another bite. “In the pet shop analogy, you’re the dog that’s only there for temporary boarding until your owners return from their honeymoon.”
“Oh,” I mumbled.
“Your mother is going to pick you up soon once she gets well. And then, you’ll return to stay with your parents just like the good old days.”
He looked at me as if he was expecting me to say something in return.
“Guess so,” I finally answered after a long silence.
I never told anyone that my mother was lying in a coma with no prospect of recovery. I wasn’t trying to hide it. I just didn’t see the merit of bringing it up. No one really asked about her or her illness. Probably because I was a newcomer, and being eighteen, I was much older than the rest of them.
I could also have said that I had a father. But that wasn’t exactly correct either. My mother was a mistress. My father already had a legal wife and three children older than me.
To be fair, my father did take good care of my mother and me by supporting us financially. He also visited us every now and then. But once my mother passed away, whatever bond remained between my father and I would probably disappear.
“Thanks for the apple,” Han said. “It’s delicious.”
“Do you want more?” I asked.
“It’s okay, Yin. I’ve had enough.”
I put the rest of them back in the fridge.
“Was it you who bought the apples?” he asked.
“You must have bought it for your mother. I shouldn’t have eaten it.”
“It’s okay, Han,” I said. “I bought too many. My mother wouldn’t be able to finish it even if she wanted to.”
I had bought the apples in a daze when I walked back from school and passed the greengrocer. The shop owner and the staff were loading some fresh goods from the delivery truck when I spotted a box of Gala apples, my mother’s favorite fruit.
“Miss, do you want to buy some apples?” the owner asked. “They’re very fresh. Just arrived.”
“Yes,” I answered without thinking.
Only after I paid and had the apples inside a plastic bag hanging from my hand did I realize that there was no way my mother could eat those apples. I took them back to Sunflower House. The children would surely love them.
I washed them with salt water, another habit I picked up from the housekeeper. Should I serve them fresh or make them into a salad? Probably fresh, to minimize the hassle. If my mother were well, she would have loved to eat these apples.
I checked the calendar. Saturday was coming.
It was then that Han entered the kitchen and roused me from my thoughts.
Han opened the kitchen cabinet and took out a pretty rattan basket.
“For the apples,” he said. “Your mother would love it.”
He put the basket on the table and took out the fruits from the fridge. I stood there quietly, watching him arranging the apples inside the basket. After he finished, he took a small note and wrote, “Do not eat. For Yin’s Mother,” and taped it on the basket.
“Done,” he said proudly. “Too bad, we don’t have any ribbon.”
“Thanks, Han. It’s really pretty.”
“Let me know what your mother says.”
I put the apple basket inside the fridge.
In the afternoon, Han came into the kitchen when I was washing the dirty dishes.
He gave me a shimmery pink ribbon. “For decoration.”
“Did you buy this?” I asked.
“No, no. It’s not new,” he answered. “It used to be my mother’s. I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s a memento from your mother.” I returned it to him. “I don’t think I should have it.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He shoved it back. “It’s only a ribbon.”
He looked persistent so I relented. “If you insist.”
I tied it on the basket while he was watching. He looked at me with a big smile.
On Friday afternoon, I received a call from my father.
“Yin, we need to talk,” he said. “Can I pick you up on Saturday morning, say, around nine? We can have breakfast together.”
“Of course,” I said.
Whenever he said “we need to talk,” I knew he was going to discuss something important. The last time “we needed to talk” was when he decided I should move into Sunflower House.
“Your mother’s condition is getting worse,” he had said then. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for a young lady to stay alone.”
“I’m fine, Father,” I said. “Besides, I’m not really alone, Aunt Tao comes every day.”
“Yes, I know you’re very independent. But as your father, I don’t feel at ease.”
“What do you suggest then?” I asked. I was worried he was going to tell me to move into his house. I knew his family hated my mother and me. We were the family wreckers after all.
“A good friend of mine runs an orphanage. It’s near your school. I spoke to him and he agreed to take you in until your mother gets better. I’m sure you’ll be well taken care of,” he said. “Do you think it’s a good idea, Yin?”
From the way he said it, I knew he had already made the decision. I had no other choice but to say yes. A few days later, I became the newest resident of Sunflower House.
I waited on the porch for my father with the basket of apples on my lap. I had been planning to pretend to forget about it. But when I was getting ready, Han saw me. “Don’t forget the apples,” he shouted.
I cursed quietly and took out the apple basket from the fridge.
My father came exactly at nine in his black Lexus. I walked over and took the front passenger seat.
“Good morning,” I said as I fastened the seatbelt.
He saw the apple basket, but he didn’t say anything about it. Tactful as always, he was that kind of man.
“Where do you want to go, Yin?”
“Anywhere is fine.”
He thought about it for a while. Fine lines were forming on his forehead.
“Let’s go to the Odeon Bistro then,” he said eventually, and the fine lines were gone.
My father was already in his fifties. He ran a big family business. I got the impression that he was pretty influential in our area. His business clients included government officials. With his balding hair, my father was far from attractive. But he had good posture and possessed a certain charm that made you feel that you could trust him.
My mother didn’t think so. “Make no mistake, Yin. You should never trust men, especially successful businessmen like your father. They know how to twist things around to their advantage.”
“You don’t like him?”
“I do like him, but I don’t trust him.”
My mother had left her family house after a fight with her parents when she was my age. She rented a cheap room and worked at my father’s company doing menial administrative tasks: making coffee, photocopying documents, sending packages, those kinds of things. Apparently during a company party, my father had too much alcohol. It was supposed to be a one-off thing between the company’s chairman and the new young hire.
When my mother came up to him a few weeks later with the pregnancy news, he took responsibility. He respected my mother’s decision to have me. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was an economic decision on her part, though my mother wouldn’t admit it to me.
My father told my mother to quit her job, and he rented a nice room for her. He also gave her a monthly allowance. After I was born, he ordered a DNA test. Once the paternity was confirmed, he got us a decent apartment and paid her a bigger monthly allowance. He made sure to visit us at least once a month. And every year, I would get expensive presents on my birthday and at Christmas. He was being a good father in his own way.
To be honest, I felt that it was my mother who took advantage of him. But no matter how nice my father was, nothing would change the fact that I was an illegitimate child he never planned to have. There was always a wall of separation, a safe distance between us.
My father took a sip of his coffee while I was stirring the tea. Both of us were waiting for the other to start the conversation. Eventually, he spoke.
“I heard from my friend that you’re getting along well with the children in the orphanage.”
I nodded. “They’re good kids.”
“Yes, I believe so. Too bad they’re not so lucky.”
“I’ll send over a donation to the orphanage under your mother’s name.”
“That would be great.”
It was back to silence. My father took another sip of the coffee. He put it down and looked straight at me.
“I called you because there is something I want to discuss with you. It’s about your mother,” he finally said. “I know it’s not easy to accept, but last week the doctors certified her as brain dead. It’s unlikely that she will ever wake up again. No, that’s not exactly right.” He paused. “Actually, there is zero chance of recovery. Brain dead is already considered dead.”
I continued to stir my tea.
“I know it’s hard, but I’ve decided to take her off the life support machine next month. Your mother has suffered long enough. It’s time for us to let her go peacefully. So please take these few days to say your last goodbyes. I’m sorry, Yin.”
He said it without a hint of emotion. It occurred to me that the man in front of me was the chairman who had to deliver lines such as “I’m sorry, but we had to let you go,” while maintaining the perfect demeanor. Sorry, but not sorry.
“After the funeral, I’m planning to send you to study overseas. Probably Europe, maybe the UK. A new environment will help you to move on,” my father said. “What do you think, Yin?”
“Yes, Father.” I cleared my throat. “I think it’s a good idea.”
The waiter came with our pancakes. But when I ate, I couldn’t taste anything. I ended up eating only a few bites and left the rest untouched. As usual, my father didn’t say a word about it.
My mother’s hospital room was a vast sea of white — the wall, the floor, the ceiling, the linen, the bedframe, the table, the chair and her pajamas. The only color present was the lavender bouquet arranged on top of the table, but its sweet fragrance was overpowered by the antiseptic odor.
My mother lay on her bed. She was sleeping as usual, her life supported by a machine.
I sat on the chair next to her bed and put the apple basket on the bedside table. Normally I would move her body to prevent her from getting bedsores. But that day, I just sat and talked to her.
“Mother, I’m here,” I whispered to her. “I brought Gala apples for you. It’s your favorite, remember?”
I reached for her right hand and held it with two hands. Her hand used to be smooth and perfectly manicured, but now it was bare and bony.
“Mother, you should wake up now. Otherwise, they’re going to take you away from me.”
I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t hold it any longer. I ended up burying my head on her bed to muffle the sounds. I continued to cry until I fell asleep with my head resting next to her hand.
I felt a gentle stroke on my hair. When I opened my eyes, I saw that my mother was looking at me.
“You’re awake,” I said.
My mother smiled weakly.
“I’ll call the nurse.” I stood and looked for the call button.
“Yin, don’t. I need to talk to you.” She held my left hand tightly. “Please.”
I was taken aback, but I did as I was told. I didn’t want to upset her. “Yes, Mother. What do you want to talk about?”
“How are you, Yin?” she asked. “It’s been a while since we spoke, hasn’t it? I know things aren’t good now.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mother. You woke up.” I smiled. “That means you’re getting better. Everything is fine now.”
She looked at me. “I wonder.”
“Mother, you’re going to get well,” I said, and looked at the apple basket. “Look, I brought Gala apples for you.”
Her lips curled a little. “That’s very sweet of you, Yin.”
“Do you want to eat it now?”
“Maybe not today.”
“I’ll bring another basket when you get discharged. So you must get well, all right?”
Still, no reply.
“Mother …” I put my right hand on top of her hand. “I need you.”
She looked at me and began to talk.
“Listen to me, Yin. Right now, things aren’t going well and soon it might get worse. But I want you to know that once you get through this, everything is going to be so much better. It’s like a thunderstorm, after the storm passes the weather is always fair,” she said. “That’s why you need to pull yourself together no matter what happens.”
“Mother, let’s stop this talk,” I said, trying hard to hold my tears. “I promise, Mother. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m sorry, Yin.”
I put my head down on her bed and she stroked my hair again. I began to cry once more. My mother didn’t say a word. She stroked my hair until I fell asleep.
“Miss, miss …” A gentle voice woke me up.
I saw a nurse standing next to me.
“I’m sorry, but visiting hours are over.”
I looked at my mother, but she was sound asleep.
“Can you call the doctor now? My mother was awake.”
“I’m sorry?” She looked confused.
“My mother,” I repeated. “She was awake just now.”
“Miss, are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“No.” I glanced at my mother, but she was sleeping peacefully. “We were just talking.”
I turned to the nurse. I could see from her face that she didn’t believe me. Was it really a dream?
“Miss?” She touched my elbow. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes,” I quickly said. “Maybe you’re right, I was dreaming. But still, can you ask the doctor to examine my mother?”
“Please make sure the doctor checks her properly. It’s important.”
“Yes, Miss.” She gave me a professional smile. “I’ll make a note on the patient’s file.”
I left my mother’s hospital room, leaving the apple basket behind.
I was at the kitchen with Mao, one of the regular volunteers, while Han was bringing in the dirty dishes.
“Hey, do you want more apples?” I asked Han. “There are still a few in the fridge.”
“Yes, please,” he said. “Can I share them with the others?”
“Why not? We have enough for everyone.” I opened the fridge and took the fruit out. I peeled the skin and cut the apple into small dice. Han was watching near the door.
“Do you want to have a go?”
He shook his head. “I’m not good with a knife.”
“Come on. You won’t get any better unless you practice enough.”
He laughed. I had a feeling he didn’t want to try. I didn’t press further and did the rest of the work quietly. I placed the apples on a big plate and put some toothpicks on it. Han took the plate and disappeared into the living room.
“You shouldn’t say that to him,” Mao said after Han left.
“Learning to peel apples.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Han is terrified of knives,” she answered. “His father was depressed and tried to kill him with a kitchen knife when he was young. After that his father committed suicide. Han was badly injured. There are knife wound marks all over his abdomen.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It was all over the newspapers. They changed his name since he was a minor, but a lot of people knew about it.”
“I see.” I bit my lip.
“When he first came, he used to be much worse. He would have nightmares and started screaming hysterically whenever he saw a knife.” She looked at me. “It’s not your fault, you didn’t know. Plus, he’s much better now.”
Mao poured the dishwashing liquid on the sponge and started to scrub the dirty dishes. After she passed them to me, I rinsed them under the running tap water and put them into the drying rack.
Han came to me with the empty plate.
“Thanks,” he said.
I took the plate from him and washed it. We were the only ones there. Mao was already gone.
“You never told me what your mother said about the apple basket we prepared for her,” Han said.
“Oh, she said it was pretty.”
“I knew she was going to say that,” he said with a satisfied smile. “I’m going to go to my room. Plenty of homework to finish.”
“Wait, Han,” I called him.
“I might be leaving soon,” I said. “Probably another one, two months.”
“That’s great,” he said. “I told you your mother was going to get better, didn’t I?”
I smiled awkwardly.
“Are you going back to your old apartment?”
“I don’t think so. My father will probably find a new place for me.”
“Good, don’t forget to give me the address. I’ll come over and visit you. I’ll also bring some apples for your mother.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “I’m sure Mother will be happy.”
Clarissa N G is a Singapore-based writer and a Curtis Brown Creative student. Her short stories have won several awards, and been published in Black Denim Lit, The MacGuffin, Needle In The Hay, and Writing The City. She is currently working on her first novel.