HomeUncategorized“Before the Valley,” by Rachel Heng

“Before the Valley,” by Rachel Heng

Audio: Rachel Heng reads.

The candles were already lit when Hwee Bin arrived. Her mistake—she’d missed the announcement at breakfast saying today’s party would take place in the Big Hall, instead of in the Rec Room. What was wrong with the Rec Room? she mentally complained, while taking her place in the crowd. Birthday celebrations were always in the Rec Room. But, catching a glimpse of potbellied Kirpal in his wheelchair, Hwee Bin softened. Likely the change had been made because Kirpal was so popular, and more residents than usual were expected to attend. Typically, birthdays were local affairs. Hwee Bin was in Ward 4, one of the fourteen-bed wards, which was a bad thing every day of the year except her birthday, when it meant that she could count on at least thirteen other people showing up to her party. A relief, since Hwee Bin had never been good at making friends, even before.

“Before” was the shorthand residents used for their lives prior to Sunrise Valley. Before wasn’t talked about often; it felt unseemly somehow, self-indulgent, to dwell on one’s past life. What did it matter, for example, that Cynthia, from Ward 8, had been an actress who starred in the horror films that used to be made here in Singapore, back in the sixties? Or that Hasmi, from Ward 12, had been a lawyer and was even rumored to have owned his own firm? They were all here now, Sunrise Valley residents one and the same. Sure, Cynthia was in a two-bedder with a garden view, and Hasmi had one of the few, coveted, and very expensive single wards. They still had to come to the linoleum-tiled dining room each morning for the same soggy kaya toast and watered-down coffee. Still took their seats each evening in front of the television, which blared, alternately, English-, Chinese-, Malay-, and Tamil-language soaps. Wards aside, were the residents not all in the same boat? The details might differ—mild dementia, children too busy to visit, loss of leg function, no living relatives—but the crux of the matter was the same. You were stuck in Sunrise Valley regardless, whether it was paid for by your dwindling pension, the government, or an erstwhile child.

Of course, Cynthia and Hasmi would disagree. Those in the smaller wards were most likely to let slip details of their Befores—nothing too obvious, just a hint here, an old business card there—because they couldn’t bear being lumped in with everyone else. Hwee Bin understood. Once, she, too, would have bristled at the thought of sitting among strangers in the dining room that smelled like a hospital, eating from childish plastic bowls. But you got used to it. And if you didn’t—well, some didn’t.

A scuffle broke out to Hwee Bin’s left, then a wail.

“Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, Hazel, never mind, let her have it, sh-h-h, O.K., O.K., she’ll give it back to you. . . .”

The aide fussed and soothed, but Hazel’s cries only grew louder. The nature of the offense: her neighbor had snatched the graying stuffed rabbit that Hazel carried everywhere. Baobao, she called it—one of the few words she still spoke. Baby. Even with the rabbit restored to her, Hazel continued to storm, flailing at her neighbor’s face as if she were a nightmare to be banished.

Hwee Bin averted her gaze. Seeing Hazel like this made something open up inside her, a frightening abyss she had to carefully ignore or risk falling into. Just a year ago, Hazel had sat with them in the common dining hall, carrying on entire conversations, eating on her own, and complaining loudly about the food. “Curry as thin as my diarrhea,” Hwee Bin remembered her saying once, when they were seated at the same table. Back then, Hazel’s eyes had been bright and impish, her wispy white hair neatly pulled back with a shiny red clip. “You got diarrhea?” Hazel had asked. Hwee Bin shook her head. “Lucky you.”

Hazel had had mild dementia then. Many of them did, and still lived happily with everyone else. But, six months later, she had disappeared from the dining room. “High-D,” the others whispered, shaking their heads, and then they spoke of Hazel no more. No one liked to talk about the high-dependency residents, who lived on the third floor. Stroke victims, the paralyzed or severely incapacitated, the self-harming, and, on rare occasions, those who had lost all hope and simply refused to eat or move. There was a special ward in High-D for those with advanced dementia; that was where Hazel lived now. High-D residents were always in wheelchairs, and wore large, pillowy gloves that looked like oven mitts.

With her teeth, Hazel now tore off a glove and flung it in the aide’s face.

“Take her out, please,” Mrs. Tan called from the front of the room, where the candles for Kirpal were slowly burning down. Mrs. Tan spoke in what Hwee Bin called her “weekend voice,” the warm, syrupy tone she assumed on Saturdays and Sundays, when Sunrise Valley teemed with families and visitors. Her usual voice was rigid and cold, often crackling with impatience. One understood, Hwee Bin thought. As the floor manager responsible for some twenty wards and more than a hundred residents, Mrs. Tan could not be saying please and thank you in her weekend voice all the time or nothing would ever get done. But today was Wednesday. Could it be . . . Hwee Bin craned her neck to see the front of the room.

Sure enough, a tall, slender young woman stood beside Kirpal’s wheelchair, one hand on his shoulder.

“O.K., Dada-ji, we sing now?” The woman smiled, and the smile lit up her lovely face. Her throat was like an egret’s, long and graceful and smooth. She put one hand to it now.

“Indian girls, when pretty, always so pretty,” Ah Gau, from Ward 5, said. He spoke in Hokkien.

“Pervert,” Hwee Bin hissed back.

“Say only! Say also cannot?”

“Sh-h-h.”

“Kirpal also always say, ‘Satveer this,’ ‘Satveer that,’ ‘Satveer so smart,’ ‘Satveer the most pretty’—”

“Are you Satveer’s grandfather?”

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.”

Ah Gau and Hwee Bin were drowned out by the singing, a dissonant chorus of residents’ voices slipping in and out of synch. Mrs. Tan led the song in English, and the residents sang along in whatever version they knew. Ah Gau began singing in Mandarin, Hwee Bin, rather proudly, in English. She liked any chance to practice. Hwee Bin was born the youngest child of seven, at a time when her older siblings were already working, and thus, despite her father’s having been a karang guni—rag-and-bone man—and her mother a laundrywoman, she’d been afforded the rare luxury of school. After attending the convent school up to Form Six and even learning a few words of French, she’d gone on to take a typing class and got a job as a secretary at a small shipping company. Eventually, she’d had to leave, of course, once she married and had her children. But how many of the women of Sunrise Valley could say that they’d once read “Le Petit Prince” to a roomful of elegant Brits at the Raffles Hotel? In hindsight, Hwee Bin saw how shamelessly she’d been used by the convent nuns to raise funds for the school, trotted out at charity galas and school fairs like a prize pig. Never would she have allowed her own child to be paraded in this way. And yet those golden evenings, filled with the scent of cut roses withering in tropical heat, the gloved hands of wealthy women cupping her chin, the applause and admiration—they would stay with her always.

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